The Idiot Box Gets Smart
Ross Crawford on why the internet will do more to promote rather than abolish inequality.

A child sits at a computer in his immaculate suburban bedroom and types out an e-mail greeting. Cut to another child in an urban slum. He flips on a TV. The screen lights up with colorful graphics--and his affluent friend's e-greeting. The poor kid smiles. The caption: "Network computers allow everyone to join the information age."

For a TV commercial, it's downright uplifting.

But a classified ad in my local paper spins a slightly different story. "MAKE BIG CA$H! SURF the NET on TV! OPPORTUNITY of the MILLENNIUM!" The wizards of silicon have come up with another gadget to keep the wheels on the careening high-tech bandwagon - and this time, they're going after a whole new market. Using the most commonplace of advertising tools, the TV set (found in 98% of North American homes), they hope to finally be able to sell the digital future (and the doodads that go with it) to the vast numbers of people that can't afford a home computer.

Wondering how to get in on this bonanza, I called one of the numbers in the classifieds. The guy who answered excitedly invited me out to his house. To my surprise, he wasn't a grinning young sharpie, but a retired fighter pilot. "I was all ready to play golf," he explained. "And then this came along."

The network computer, a lightweight box the size of a hardcover book, is a simple enough device: plug a phone line into the back of it, plug another cable into your TV, and soon you're able to flip from The X-Files to the show's Web site, and back again.

But if you believe the hype, Internet-TV is much more than the sum of its media -- it's the coiled spring in the Great Leap Forward, an instrument that empowers the masses. Tune in to a White House press conference. Think Bill Clinton is fibbing? Hit a button and instantly fire off an e-mail. Attach a couple of cameras, and the network computer becomes a video telephone, enabling grandma to talk to her kids in far-off lands. At around $300, it's technology anyone can afford - though it's unlikely many welfare moms would have $300 laying around, let alone enough credit to sign on to a computer network. But net-TV's capabilities don't end there. In the face of the computer is a little slot -- for a debit card. Hundreds of companies are designing online banks and malls for Internet-TV: if you're watching an infomercial and suddenly you're convinced you need buns of steel, all you have to do is pop your card into the slot. Minutes later, a warehouse in Poughkeepsie packs up a TotalGym and sends it to you, a couple of hundred bucks gets sucked out of your bank account, and - most ingenious of all - the person who sold you the net-TV unit earns a commission. Opportunity of the millennium, pal. What about privacy? Network computers update their software automatically, calling up mainframes and downloading the latest version -- and I'm afraid that my computer might start calling all sorts of people in the middle of the night. My credit and banking history could be tapped without me even knowing it. Pitchmen could barge into my living room from the other side of the world. My boss might even use that camera to check up on me.

"Don't worry," said the pilot, reassuringly. "That happens every day already."

Taken from Adbusters magazine: