There are Only Minds: MCI’s 1997 Cyberutopian TV Spot

I have spent the last day and half in Boulder, Colorado thanks to the kind folks at University of Colorado, Boulder’s Arts & Sciences Support of Education Through Technology (ASSET). I presented a version of the talk I gave at the University of Oklahoma in January, and I’m getting more and more compelled by the prevalence of transportation metaphors for explaining the web. I may have the whole thing nailed by June, just in time for Barcelona.

Last night at dinner, I had a compelling discussion with Phoebe Young and Noah Finkelstein about some of the themes in the talk, including the idea of the web we lost 25 years after its inception. This is a central part of the talk, and is framed by this clip from Orson Welles‘s Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The scene takes place at the dawn of the automobile age (mid-1910s) and Joseph Cotton’s character seems rather prescient in the way he pontificates on how cars will change everything, even the way we think.

I love this scene because he’s circumspect and rather ambivalent about the impact of this technology on humanity. What’s more, it makes a neat parallel with how the web has changed everything, yet we continue to have a deeply ambivalent relationship with its presence. During this discussion Phoebe described a MCI commercial from 1997 that she uses in her American History survey course to try and capture a sense of the utopian zeitgeist around the early moments of the web during the 90s. A web that has “no race, no genders, no age, no infirmities…only minds.  Utopia? The INTERNET!” It’s a truly remarkable document of a moment of seemingly unlimited promise and possibility.

And while the discussion turned to the fact that this was a telecom commercial selling a product using cyberutopia as the pitch, Phoebe’s point about how far we’ve fallen from the limitless sense of possibility of the web resonated. I worked it into my presentation today—albeit awkwardly—because I wanted to try and illustrate that very point. This sense of a virtual communications network that solves the deeper social inequalities around race, gender, and class may have always already been misguided, but that’s the allure of a revolutionary technology, right?.

This utopian impulse for social justice 25 years later—however muted and dulled by the cynicism capital necessarily breeds—still drives much of the work the best folks are doing in edtech on the web. And while MCI’s attempt to erase class, race, gender, age, and infirmity is fraught from the get go, the idea of connecting and augmenting minds from around the globe irrespective of these categories is a utopian narrative still heavily traded on in educational technology. Just look at the fervor around MOOCs leveling the global playing field of education over the last few years. The deep desire to believe we can start connecting and augmenting the world’s minds regardless of privilege and station dies hard. The difference 18 years later is we know we are being sold a bill of goods, but we still desperately want to believe. Hope springs eternal, and that is a very dangerous and powerful thing.

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