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Wiring the Kids

Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5    by Christopher Martin and Bettina Fabos

"Today, through distance learning, MCI can
launch entire schools." -- an MCI commercial

Taking the Kids on a Trip to Planet Education
Like the exploratory technologies before it (e.g., radio, television, and even the space age), the Internet began to be associated with educational possibilities for children, the next generation. A 1995 Network MCI ad campaign starring child actress Anna Paquin suggests that its computer network offers access to the penultimate road of exploration and, as such, is a consequential ticket to child sagacity. In the ad, Paquin is wearing vintage chic velvet, a floppy Victorianesque hat, and is hued in gentle, enchanting sepia tones. She stands on a rock by the sea, and through the magic of editing seamlessly "hops" from one rock to another (another version shows her in a snowy forest). Because of her precisely measured New Zealand accent, Paquin sounds "smart." She was, in fact, awarded a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in The Piano and oozes the brilliance and precocity of her winning role. "There will be a road," she says, hopping from one rock to the next. "It will not connect two points. It will connect all points. Its speed will be the speed of light. It will not go from here to there. There will be no there. We will all only be here."

As MCI’s designated 1995 spokesperson, Paquin is the child-sage at the entrance to a sort of infinity of information, or, as Internet marketers (including President Clinton) prefer to describe it, "a universe of knowledge." This frontier is internal, rather than external; wide open, virgin territory for anyone — especially children — to explore directly, rather than the mere vicarious exploration in which Americans experienced space travel. Paquin’s old-fashioned, artsy outfit mixed with her futuristic know-how is a clever way to mollify the inhuman aspects of technology. She is surrounded by nature, nowhere near a computer, and discusses technology in metaphorical terms as if she’s recounting a childhood riddle. While her presentation conveys the technological mysticism of ethernet cables and html files, the road metaphor suggests a tangible, user-friendly route for exploration. The reassuring expertise of a female child (technology is usually associated with grown men) is also a tacit nod to the ease of Internet and computer access, and appeals to public doubts about technological determinism and corporate and political profits.

Even as the Internet has replaced outer space as a site for American exploration and transcending knowledge, images of space, planets and galactic travel continue to be a prevalent motif for promoting the Internet, just as planets came to represent a symbol of exploratory possibility in the marketing of television and, of course, space travel.

Another Network MCI television ad, aired in 1997 on CNN, focuses on space, children and education. It starts with warm, lush, classical music and opens on a long shot of an astronaut floating happily in a space capsule. "Hello America!" the astronaut says with a Russian accent. A tracking shot sweeps by white fourth graders behind a row of monitors in an airy, sunny classroom. The students are looking at their monitors while interacting with each other.

One kid points to the screen. "Ask him what’s it like floating in space," says the child’s voice over. "What?" another kid replies. A low chatter with words like "cool" runs throughout the ad. A child’s hands (in close up) type quickly. The astronaut slowly reaches out and grabs a camera (in foreground) that floats toward him. We hear more questions from the entranced students: "Do you ever get a chance to sleep?" As the shot cuts to a close up of a cursor arrow clicking "send" on the computer screen [text below the cursor reads "To: Mission Control (Internet)."], a Lauren Bacall-like voice says "It used to be that we just launched rockets into space." A girl looking at the screen appears transfixed. The astronaut punches a message into his computer. Then a student’s shoe lace floats upwards, followed by a girl’s pigtails, a boy’s frog (coming out of a desk), and a boy’s pencil. The children appear captivated and amazed. Meanwhile we hear snippets of the kids’ bursting curiosity: "what’s the scariest moment...what about coming home when the fuel’s all gone?" The voice-over returns: "Today, through distance learning, MCI can launch entire schools." The lush music incorporates a plinky, happy xylophone. Kids — along with a globe, a book a trumpet and a lunch box — float pleasantly above their desks. A boy (still seated) pokes at transparent blobs floating out of a bottle. Finally, a black screen with white text (ending with an e-mail smiley face) reads "Is this a great time, or what?:) MCI."

By returning to familiar yet symbolically updated images of the space race, and by portraying the Internet as an important channel of scientific exploits, the ad makes computer technology the kindred spirit of NASA’s technological achievements. The ad also plays on nostalgia by invoking the Sputnik challenge, when American resources were mobilized in the name of national prestige, the drama of space exploration, and educational benefits. With a Russian astronaut in this space nostalgia, the MCI ad also reminds us -- especially target-audience baby boomers who are parents of school-age children -- of the space race’s "happy" ending in which America remained dominant. The baby boomer generation was treated in school with live television viewings of Apollo lift-offs and moon walks. Now, the ad suggests, the current generation of school children can be "launched" into space as well, with an even more "virtual" space experience. The technology in this ad is presented in a humanizing, reassuring way that points to the learning enabled by computer/Internet technology rather than to the economic benefits accrued to the many corporations that hope to put a networked computer on every school desk.

As computers and Internet software are framed in television ads as exploratory tools and extensions of students’ imagination, children in these same ads are pictured as precocious experts of Internet travel. The Internet is not only used by precocious children, we are led to believe it creates precocious children, and students are thus represented as self-motivated learners all on their own. Of course, depicting the computer/Internet instead of the teacher as the center of the learning process is good business for computer companies and Internet servers. This image of teacherless classrooms also conveniently creates a mechanized individual instruction solution for school districts downsizing their human teaching staff -- often in order to buy even more computers.

"Is this a good time or what?"
-- an MCI commerical

In one Internet ad that does depict a teacher, the shot of the instructor lasts only about two seconds, with the teacher standing in the middle of an elementary class and saying part of "Is this a good time or what?", Network MCI’s 1997 slogan. Consequently, while the teacher becomes a "guide at the side" and is removed from any position of authority, and while children become inquisitive, collaborative "experts," the ultimate educational expertise in this misleading arrangement is actually accorded to whatever is on the Internet computer screen.

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