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False Reality 

Super Bowl ads hawk silicon snake oil

I watched the Super Bowl for the dot-com ads. What geeky cleverness would the young tech titans ram down our throats this time? But by the second half, I had become a fan of fellow Mississippian Steve McNair -- and grown even more tired of high-tech mania.

My dot-com cynicism mounted about the time Muhammed Ali, ill with Parkinson's, shadowboxed for WebMD.com. It grew when Christopher Reeve "walked" across the stage for Nuveen Investments. By the time EDS.com herded cats, I believed most of the ads were hawking silicon snake oil (a phrase coined by skeptical author Clifford Stoll).

Super Bowl used to sell us stuff: a Macintosh, Budweiser, Doritos. Now though, like Amazon.com's value and AOL's currency, it's all an intangible bill of goods. They're asking us to just buy online, invest in high-tech dreams and believe the world will bask in Internet-driven prosperity. Bubble, smubble.

The dot-commers (and their bankrollers) imply that should we, like Reeve or Ali, suffer a debilitating illness or injury, our high-tech faith today will someday yield a cure. Never mind the hard questions: Will we be able to afford those advancements? Will the market dictate who benefits? Will it be patented by U.S. health-care companies and unavailable in, say, East Africa?

Meantime, tech cultists wave away red flags. The last week of January alone: cash-poor Amazon laid off 150 workers (typical excuse: "but they have thousands more"). Stock prices, especially technology, dropped dramatically amid fears of raised interest rates ("temporary glitch"). More hackers stole credit-card numbers. ("Not our fault.") A California woman sued a dot-com (DoubleClick) for collecting personal information without her consent. ("Anyone who uses the Internet and doesn't expect to be marketed to is living in some kind of false reality," Internet ad expert Clay Ryder responded to the Associated Press.)

The buzz out of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland is even more telling. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey released as the conference opened revealed that 50 percent of global chief executive officers now worry that the Internet will widen the gap between rich and poor nations (38 percent said it would narrow it).

The New York Times played that down, however. It emphasized that 1,020 surveyed chief executives are "overwhelmingly optimistic" about Internet-driven growth (actually 27 percent are "extremely optimistic"; 64 percent are "somewhat optimistic"). The New Straits Times Press in Malaysia was more restrained, interpreting those numbers as "generally bullish." It added other disquieting figures: The ratio of real incomes per head between the richest and poorest countries was 3-to-1 in the early 19th century. By 1990, it was 10-to-1 and this year it is nearing 60-to-1, the paper said.

The study found that some 600 of the world's wealthiest CEOs are worried that the widening wealth gap may cause social unrest. No shit. Did it really take an explosion in Seattle to highlight that possibility? President Clinton is finding the nerve to say that his beloved globalization should come with safeguards: "Don't leave the little guys out," he told the conference, pinpointing problems such as global warming and escalating AIDS deaths in developing nations.

Of course, many little guys -- whether the local bookstore, inner-city and trailer-park kids, or cheap laborers in developing worlds -- are already left out. It's easy for us to watch the Super Bowl and laugh about herding cats and cry when we see Superman walk again. It takes a bit more courage to be demanding of our new Internet economy.

I like the sentiments of Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, a retired MIT scholar who believes we can enjoy the fruits of technology, while questioning how they're grown. "Speaking globally, society is suffering from a gigantic failure of critical thinking," he told the Times last April. "In a certain sense people are getting dumber. People seem to have lost the capacity for skepticism and what I call critical thinking."

I did like one dot-com ad, though: that Pets.com puppet singing "Don't Go." I'll laugh about it all the way to my local pet store.

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