The Dot.Com Kid

The Dot.Com Kid
How those ads make Cargo Cults of us all

New Years Eve, 1999. While the grownups watched CNN unfolding the Year 2000, five year-old Dibs played on the floor with his Christmas things. His puppet box became a ‘computer’ with an arrangement of Legos for a keyboard and Gears for a mouse. He plunked happily away ignoring the new millennium.

Neither bad weather, human terror nor Y2K error spoiled the televised celebrations as time zone after time zone came and went. In fact, about the only computer snafu seemed to be the inability of all those dot.coms to deliver the promised goods. What can I say. and I were practically blood brothers between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I was hardly a stranger at MacMall. UPS has made a permanent groove in the driveway.

The lack of Y2K excitement left plenty of time to reflect on the past year. How, I wondered, had we gotten to the point where the primary excuse for buying a computer was not business, not education, not even email. No, the reason for getting a computer was so that we could Buy More Stuff.

Not long ago, computers were big and scary and very, very expensive–best interfaced with a good science fiction story. Then we found them creeping into our lives to keep track of data, like those financial records stuffed in a shoe box. Those of us whose budgets had never quite worked on paper weren’t about to commit them to an all-knowing machine even if we’d understood how to go about it. But, as time went on, computers got a little easier and a little cheaper.

All at once, schools were desperate to fill their buildings with at least a token technology so that the kindergarteners would be ready for prime time when they graduated a dozen years hence. Little ones who could not lisp “C:\ m-i-c-k-e-y” and press enter without freezing the works were branded ‘technologically illiterate.’ Oh, we were digital snobs in those days.

Eventually, word processing, data management, desktop publishing (and, okay, a bunch of games), kept us glued to our stand alone machines. We printed reports, organized our lives, educated our kids and scratched creative urges we never knew we had, all in the privacy of our own computers. The media deplored our solitary lives and predicted terrible things would happen to those who shut themselves off from the real world.

Then, while the big guys were hyping the mostly non-existent Information Highway, the small fry made it happen. Suddenly we were all typing ‘www’ and fighting for a phone line. The media deplored our newly connected lives and predicted terrible things would happen to those who interacted too liberally with the online world.

Surely it was just yesterday that we were admonished to get our kids online both at home and at school. Once wired, they would, we were assured, tap joyously into reservoirs of knowledge from all over the globe. Word processing, data management, desktop publishing and CDs full of info were passé. It was the Day of the Internet. The world was ours–and our children would inherit this bright new ball if only we brought home the latest Gateway. Or Dell. Or (let’s hear a few cheers here–we finally got some catchy ads of our own) an iMac.

Schools that had hocked everything but the sports program in order to fill the rooms with computers now began hocking their futures, not to mention dislocating their educational programs, to get the old buildings wired for the new millennium. As a special ed & reading teacher, my room was appropriated three times in three years to make way for technology, each time moving us either into smaller and smaller quarters or out of the building altogether. But, by gosh, we were wired!

(Mick O’Neil makes a great point for schools adopting the iBook as a solution to the wiring fiascoes brought about by today’s administrative race to get wired at all costs. Check out the October ’99 issue of My Mac, “The iBook / An Apple for the Whole School” at

But could it be too little too late? Instead of bobbing for knowledge (or fishing for porn), we may soon find students making use of their computers only to connect with the wide world of commerce. It’s in the air.

If a combination of Crocodile Dundee and modern advertising can do for the Subaru what the iMac did for Apple, we are indeed in danger of a relentless barrage of ads turning us into a homespun cargo cult. Cargo cult? Thanks to Sherlock and, I was able to come up with this succinct, and rather timely, definition.

“cargo cults: nativistic religious movements in Melanesia holding that at the millennium ancestor spirits will bring cargoes of modern goods to believers. Dating from the 19th cent., these cults expanded after World War II forces left surplus goods in the islands and contact with the West increased.”

Think how it must have been. An innocent people suddenly witness to manna–literally from heaven. No one labored in the fields, dug roots, fished, or hunted. (i.e. fought wind, rain, blizzard and traffic jams to make it to the Mall.) And yet, there it was, falling from the skies in great silver ships. (Think UPS.) Everything from machinery to clothing to chocolate and chewing gum. No wonder then, that when the gods departed, it seemed more sensible to try to recreate the good times with mock up runways and aircraft icons than to go back to a world of hard work and no chocolate.

Just then, as the Eiffel Tower erupted in glory and the Pope was giving his blessing in Rome, Dibs interrupted these heavy musings with a cry of “Dot.Com! Dot.Com!” He had filled his imaginary computer with toys, bubble gum and, yes, chocolate.

“What in the world are you doing?” I ask.

“I’m playing Dot.Com,” he says. “See, you just gotta type in what you want. You say I want some candy, please, guys. Then you click on your mouse and yell ‘Dot.Com’ and it pops right out of the computer.” And, sure enough, with a little help from Dibs, out popped a chocolate Marshmallow Santa Claus.

So, it’s too late. Advertising wins and the brave new world is upon us. I understand that some of the Melanesians nearly starved waiting for the millennium and for their gods to return bearing that cargo of modern goods.

Susan Howerter

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