Paying the Piper


Nicholas BurbulesDepartment of Educational Policy Studies Whitman College

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T CallisterDepartment of Educational Policy Studies Whitman College

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The enormous educational potential of the Internet is threatened by the increasing commercialization of cyberspace. Beyond the obvious and often prohibitive costs of hardware, software, and Internet connectivity associated with entry into the world of new Information Technologies, the presence of commercial advertising has a deleterious affect on both the credibility of information found on sites hosting advertisements, and access to information with little mass appeal. The presence of the commercial and the educational existing side by side in cyberspace also has the potential to form troubling new relationships that may serve to foster consumerism more than education and exacerbate the serious issues of surveillance and privacy.

In 1934, the United States Government gave television broadcasters free and exclusive use of the public airwaves on the condition that they serve the” public interest, convenience and necessity” (Minnow, 1995). To the disappointment of those who, at the time, saw the possibility for television becoming a national educational resource – a way to enlighten the public – the new media was almost immediately expropriated by commercial interests. Television quickly grew into a vehicle whose primary purpose was to deliver viewers, the real” product” of the enterprise, to advertisers using programming as bait. In 1961, Newton Minnow, President Kennedy’s Chair of the Federal Communications Commission, in a speech to network broadcasters, described television as a” vast wasteland” (Minnow, 1995). By 1995, according to Minnow in Abandoned in the Wasteland, the situation had only gotten worse:” No other democratic nation has so willingly converted its children into markets for commercial gain and ignored their moral, intellectual, and social development” (Minnow, 1995). At a time when serious consideration has been given in the United States Congress to cutting the funding for non-commercial Public Television, the pretense that television is anything other than a commercial enterprise has been dropped. Television’s educational potential is clearly a secondary consideration to the concerns of corporate profits and economic growth.

The computer isn’t a television and cyberspace isn’t the space between Channel One and One Hundred and One, but there are parallels to be drawn and lessons to be learned. The enormous educational potential of television was abandoned for the interests of commerce. To what extent, we worry, will this same phenomenon occur in cyberspace? The price of admission into cyberspace and the world of Information Technology (IT), the great educational resources that so many, including the U. S. President have said is vital to education in the 21st Century, will be high. How high the cost and the extent to which educators will have some choice about” buying in” has yet to be seen. As we come to think critically about the educational promises and pitfalls of cyberspace and new Information Technologies, we need to examine these costs, not only in terms of capital – of who pays and who profits – but also in terms of the consumer and commercial messages that become embedded in the education we provide children and young people. Hardware and software, wired schools, corporate sponsorship and logos emboldening school Web pages, the proliferation of advertisements in cyberspace, the gathering of” marketing information” – these all create a tension that holds economics and education in a tightly bound, and we believe, mostly unhealthy relationship.


The most obvious costs associated with entry into the world of high technology and cyberspace are the costs associated with hardware and software. Taking a page from the marketing genius of Detroit, and aided by rapid advances in technological innovation and manufacture, hardware and software companies have given new meaning to the term” planned obsolescence.” Detroit relied on marketing and the influence of fashion and style to sell new cars to individuals who had perfectly good older cars. But at least there was backwards compatibility – you could drive to the store just as well in Dad’s new car or Mom’s old one. Things are different on the” information superhighway.” Not only do hardware and software companies draw new business with claims of speed and new features, but in what amounts to a conspiracy of convenience, we can no longer” drive the old car.” Software programs that are perfectly appropriate to the tasks that many people wish to use them for no longer run on the newest computers. As operating systems change, adding features and gimmicks and completely unintuitive” intuitive” interfaces, software programs must be” upgraded” – an often euphemistic term for having to buy essentially the same product over and over. Worse yet, software manufacturers often charge for upgrades that may add a few new “features,” but mostly fix problems that existed in the older version. Too often, it seems, consumers serve as a test audience for software manufacturers who know their product is imperfect and incomplete. After receiving feedback on problems and on how to make their product function properly, the companies then “upgrade” and resell the product back to the user. And by changing file and data standards with new versions of their software, manufacturers force holdouts back into the fold. Individuals perfectly happy with WordProcessor 1.0, soon find that they cannot exchange files with those using WordProcessor 3.0. Not only must they upgrade at some expense, but they must also invest time into learning the operation and features of a program they may not need nor want.

All this wreaks havoc in educational settings. Without constant attention, servicing, expensive upgrading, and frequent replacement cycles, the computer lab in a typical public school soon deteriorates into an educator’s incompatibility nightmare – and a marketer’s dream. Machines that were purchased just a few short years ago in the first rush for computer literacy for the 1980’s and 90’s are now only good as planters, fish tanks and doorstops for the” educational needs of the 21st century.” In an effort to” keep up,” schools are pressured to spend precious resources replacing perfectly good equipment and software for the sake of currency and compatibility. 1 The paradox, of course, is that if institutions do not grow gradually with each upgrade, the cost for the wholesale change that will inevitably come will be even greater, if not entirely prohibitive. That is, if you don’t keep up, you may never be able to catch up.

The demands of an ever-shortening hardware and software replacement cycle have human and educational costs as well. Schools, teachers, and students are caught in a tension between staying current and up to date, or simply making do with what they have. On one hand, most educators seems to share some sense of responsibility to stay current. But on the other hand, as they look forward to high capital outlays, the requirements in time and effort for new training and expanded development, and the political battles to be waged with skeptical taxpayers and back to basics adherents, may make the price seem too high. The high cost of high technology may well drive many schools into the situation where they have the worst of both worlds as they continue to feel the pressure to” integrate technology” into their curricula as best they can. The result? They retain the pedagogically bankrupt Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) practices of the previous technological generation without the resources to move up to the promising technological resources of the next generation.

Quite predictably, this will happen in certain segments of society much more frequently than in others. As the cost of access to the educational resources made possible with IT becomes increasingly high, we worry about those many schools and students with fewer capital resources to expend. Too often they face the untenable choice between not incorporating technology and remaining unconnected to a world increasingly dependent on informational technologies, or choosing to invest in technology and making severe educational sacrifices elsewhere. Where are resources better spent – a few dozen computers and Internet connectivity or an additional full time teacher in a classroom? It depends, of course, but too often it depends the most for those with the least. And either way they lose.

On a deeper level, this is more than just about the cost of upgrades and the nuisance of learning new software. It is more than simply about how schools expend and allocate resources. As Information Technology increasingly makes its way into individuals’ lives and into their work, technologizing is no longer about doing things faster or more efficiently (using e-mail or faxes because they are faster than regular mail, for example). IT has changed the very way individuals do their work. People don’t type anymore, they word-process (which is much more than simply typing); many libraries have abandoned their card catalogs in favor of on-line relational databases; in many institutions, individuals who don’t get (or read) e-mail are out of the” information” loop. The determination of how individuals work in turn influences the expected nature of that work. For example, we would argue that the expectations for a student essay differs if that essay is produced on a typewriter or a word processor: format, font, charts and illustrations, even spelling are all considerations that have come to the fore because of the capabilities of new technologies. We begin to assume that computer presentations will have graphics, sound, and perhaps animation. On one hand these capabilities, these new features, can be seen as providing a greater range of options for the user. However on the other hand, we have to realize that these are no longer simply options – their use becomes expected.

The concern is that in a market driven world of continual upgrades and innovation, individuals are no longer able to make their own decisions about the technologies with which they work. Upgrading becomes a dynamic with its own inevitable logic: if individuals want to participate in new arenas (e.g., Internet), then they are pulled along by the inevitable logic of development of that network as whole. If institutions expect certain degrees of technological participation, there can no longer be just personal choices. CTO’s and administrators, often with little knowledge of an individual’s work, will make decisions about which platforms will be purchased, what features individuals’ machines will have, and which software will and will not be supported. With this loss of individual choice comes a loss of control over how individuals work, and thus over the content and nature of that work.

Finally, the Information Super Highway is a toll road, and the longer you ride, the more it costs. Antithetical to the rather sloppy and serendipitous way the Internet works, pecuniary concerns in cyberspace create concerns of efficiency. There is pressure to get in, get the information, and get out. Pay as you go creates the situation where individuals are discouraged from exploring – just the sort of behavior we believe makes cyberspace so potentially educative. As we have argued elsewhere (Burbules and Callister, 1996), the ability to just muck about is one of the most attractive features of cyberspace. We imagine individuals would avoid libraries that not only charged for admission, but then charged by the minute; yet this is certainly similar to the way many must connect to the Internet. And once again, those that need the educational resources the most can probably afford it the least.

Getting” connected” has other costs as well. For nearly everyone, the gateway to the Internet is controlled – by a commercial provider or an educational institution, for example – and many providers impose restrictions that affect the content and utility of the Web for the user. Users may need to use specific software that privileges certain companies (in commercial arrangements, some sites can only be accessed with specific company’s browsers). There might be a restrictions on what sites can be visited, which newsgroups can be read, etc. The e-mail an individual sends or receives may be filtered. Likewise, there might be restrictions of the content of the Web pages that individuals create. The hidden cost of many providers is the restrictive price of censorship – restrictions on what can be sent, received, or viewed. But censorship can come in many disguises, and although we are extremely concerned about issues of education, censorship, and cyberspace (for example the proliferation of filtering schemes), we believe there exists another more subtle form of censorship that directly relates to the Web. It has to do with the increasing barrage of advertising individuals must suffer through as yet another cost of entering cyberspace.


If it’s true that you get what you pay for, then the Internet seems almost too good to be true. For most users, a connection to the World Wide Web provides a virtually free cornucopia of information, entertainment, and diversion. Problems such as the proliferation of” inappropriate sites” aside, cyberspace appears to be a learning resource of almost unlimited potential. A space characterized by a free, unregulated, dynamic in which to explore and learn. But a closer examination shows that cyberspace may not be as free or as unregulated as it first appears. The commercialization of cyberspace may ultimately impose a kind of systemic de facto regulation and pecuniary sensibility that will stand the current notion of cyberspace as some sort of decentralized and anarchical information resource on its head.

Americans live in a culture where advertising is so ubiquitous in public spaces that we seem not to notice it much – or at least take it for granted. Advertising is proliferating in cyberspace as well – often in the form of those (often) animated little squares and rectangles that appear on Websites long before any real information appears. What could be wrong with advertisements, even on the Websites that young people are most apt to explore? Plenty, we would argue.

Alex Molnar (1996) points out, in Giving Kids the Business, that the desire to advertise to young people in and out of schools is nothing new. As an example, Molnar discusses at length Chris Whittle’s Channel One, the enterprise where, for free video equipment including TV’s and VCRs, participating schools agreed to require students to watch twelve minutes daily of Whittle programming – ten minutes of youth oriented” news” and two minutes of commercials (Molnar, 1996). The money, big money for Whittle, was in the commercials. Whittle’s intrusion into schools was a very large and very public endeavor, but as Molnar points out, Whittle’s enterprise was simply one of many schemes corporations have used in their attempt to advertise to children in school (Molnar, 1996). As long ago as 1963, Jules Henry in Culture Against Man, made clear the profound and irrational effects advertising has on our culture. Henry focused specifically on how corporate advertising targeted children – not so much for their current buying power, but as part of their education, their cultural inculcation into capitalism, consumerism, and the ultimate goal of lifelong product loyalty (Henry, 1963).

Not unlike television, advertisements in cyberspace turn students (or anyone, for that matter) into products. The site delivers the student to the advertiser, and the more hits per site, the more lucrative the relationship between the advertiser and the site provider. This commercial arrangement creates the pecuniary impetus for site providers to create popular, attractive sites – sites that will be visited often so the advertisements can be seen. But what is the cost of this popularity? From an educational standpoint, we believe the cost is great. The price paid for the commercial relationship is the loss of specificity, depth, and the attention to subjects of limited appeal. What is lost are controversy, minority opinions, disparate views, and criticality. And what is ultimately lost is credibility. In its place stands the bland, the safe, the sensational.

Advertisements create a culture of popularity where popularity and appearance are ultimately of greater concern than content. This is the great lesson we seemed to have learned but ignored from television: accessibility and approachability are tantamount. It is not that quality and reliability must necessarily be compromised for popularity – a source of information that is constantly wrong will most likely receive few visits. Our concern, as we have discussed elsewhere, is about the issue of credibility (Callister and Burbules, 1996). In balancing the considerations of style and content, all too often style emerges victorious. According to AdKnowledge Inc., a” provider of Internet advertising management strategies”:” Advertising is a buyers’ market. The advertisers and agencies dictate how business is conducted in all other media and the Web will be no different. Websites that believe their ‘content is king’ will find themselves on the difficult side of negotiation.” 2

Advertisements influence content and thus credibility in other ways beyond giving greater import to style over substance. For example, it seems reasonable that advertisers are selective about where they advertise and what they sponsor – concerns equally true in cyberspace and public space. Corporations are concerned with placing their advertisements where individuals most likely to be interested in their products or services will see the advertisements. And certainly this practice of targeting audiences, of the strategic placements of ads, is not lost on those that create sites in cyberspace. It seems equally reasonable to think that sites are often designed with advertising possibilities in mind. This means, of course, that sites become designed to attract the kinds of targeted audiences that corporations find attractive for their advertising pitches.

Not only do corporations target specific audiences, they also walk a fine line between wanting to appeal to the broadest number of potential customers on one hand, but not offending or alienating anyone on the other. Knowing full well the importance of corporate identity and image, and understanding the proclivity of certain political and religious groups to publicly announce boycotts of advertisers and sponsors of content they disapprove of, most corporations are reasonably conservative when it comes to advertising. This, however, creates a situation where advertisers have at least tacit approval over the content of what they sponsor. Now, this may be a situation we believe we can live with when it comes to entertainment such as commercial television, but it becomes something entirely different in cyberspace when dealing with content that is potentially educational and informative. Commercial, for-profit interests are too easily at odds with, ironically, a notion of a free marketplace of ideas. Credibility is suspect when there is the understanding that the views expressed, the data enclosed, or the facts propounded have received some sponsor’s tacit approval.

The commercialism of cyberspace restores the unfortunate, but seemingly natural state of affairs where you will get what you pay for. Popular sites attracting sufficiently large audiences may be able to support themselves with advertising revenues alone. But as we’ve discussed above, these sites will be the less credible. They will necessarily yield to the commercial and ideological concerns of their sponsors; and they will contain the generally insipid content necessary to attract large audiences. On the other hand, more “discriminating” sites will begin some sort of charge arrangements. Many of these sites will fall into the realm of” Adult Entertainment.” Others will be” need to know” information providers (stock quotes, medical references, for example). Still others will be sites that deal with topics and issues where demand is insufficiently large to generate sufficient advertising revenue. In some cases, such sites, independent from external constraints, will have the possibility of being more credible. The downside, of course, is that such sites, because of their cost, will also be much less accessible. The educational concern is that in such a two tiered system, suspect but free information may be the only information available to many.

We are not suggesting that cyberspace become some sort of charitable zone where people are not compensated for their time, effort, or expertise. We are not suggesting that the Internet become analogous to the governmentally funded Public Broadcasting System. Certainly, government intervention raises the specter of ideological rather than commercial control. What we are suggesting, however, is that in the commercial environment developing in cyberspace, increasingly, credibility and access share an inverse relationship.

Although commercial advertising’s deleterious affect on the credibility of information can occur in both public space and cyberspace, we believe its consequences in cyberspace are potentially more pronounced for the reasons stated above. Furthermore, the presence of the commercial and the educational existing side by side in cyberspace has the potential to form troubling new relationships that seem only to exist in cyberspace. These are the relationships that are formed by the capability in cyberspace of linking sites together. 3

It is one thing to have an educational site contain an advertisement – with the implicit approval of content that that implies. But what are we to make of the link on an educational site that points to a commercial site? Are we to assume in this case that the educational site is granting some degree of approval to the commercial interest? Some cases in point: The Web page for a county school district in Virginia contains links to Amazon Books, and Barnes & Noble. Fine, books and education seem to go together. But the same site inexplicably contains a link to QVC, a home shopping cable TV station. An elementary school site in central Washington includes a link to a commercial site that claims to be” family friendly” but hosts dozens of advertisements for items ranging from educational toys to luggage tags to automobiles. A charter school in Georgia prominently lists its corporate partners including McDonalds, a local bank, and a national reality franchise. A cursory search of the Internet shows that many school sites either display corporate logos; contain links to commercial sites, or proclaim themselves something like a “Discovery School” – a designation that somehow identifies them with the Discovery Channel, a commercial TV station that provides much less educational programming than it delivers, in their words,” informative entertainment.”” Educational” or” Resource” links on many school sites connect to corporate sites such as Crayola, Disney, Houghin Miffin, and so on. Many of these sites do contain interesting and often imaginative” classroom” activities. But they function primarily as advertisements, with content careful controlled, first and foremost, to advance the image and ideological concerns of the sponsor.

What is the educational lesson here? Buy from big corporations rather than locally, shop at QVC, eat at McDonald’s? Certainly, that is one lesson. But the other, deeper lesson is that education and business go hand in hand. And nowhere is this tension between education and capitalism played out more dramatically than in cyberspace. Cyberspace is becoming increasingly the educational resource of choice, and not the least of our worries focuses on the parallel increase in the commercialization of cyberspace – as the Web grows so does its commercialization. If sources of information and opinions require sponsors to maintain a voice in cyberspace, who will sponsor the unpopular, the challenging, the critical voices that disagree with the system itself? Which voices will be lost, what data undisseminated for a lack of a sponsor? Commercial/educational relationships create a kind of corporate imposed censorship on one hand, and inherently jeopardize the credibility of the information that remains, on the other.

The censorship and the molding of opinions that too easily result when commercial interests coexist too closely with educational interests are of real concern to us. Yet we are not optimistic that corporate advertisers will retreat from cyberspace. Neither are we optimistic that the public much cares to do anything about the proliferation of commercial influence. First, there seems little differentiation to many between free civic speech and free commercial speech. Although this is a much broader societal issue than can be addressed in depth here, it is our sense there is no reason to believe that commercial speech should be given the same protection and access to children in schools afforded other types of speech. We see the right of young people to express themselves freely and to have access to a broad spectrum of materials and ideas as different in kind from the rights of a beverage company to try and persuade students to drink their brand of cola.

Second, as Molnar (1996) points out, as a society, we mistakenly believe that corporate involvement in schools represents an acceptable tradeoff – if advertising to young people results in more computers and more technology, great. If corporate sponsorship and advertisements allow for even more sites in cyberspace, all the better. What we would argue is that these gains will most likely come at too high a cost – questionable credibility, censored voices, and the implicit educational message sent to children that good citizens are good consumers. Finally, and importantly, the problems of education and commercialism in cyberspace may be more easily ignored because of the difficulty of defining” educational” in the context of cyberspace. As we have stressed before, the strength and real potential of cyberspace as a learning resource for students is that the traditional school-bound definitions about what is and is not educational breakdown in this hypertextual environment. In cyberspace, as in life, everything is potentially educational.

What we find potentially troubling is the possibility that the concerns of commerce, the requirements of those who financially support the infrastructure of cyberspace, will ultimately bring a great leveling and mediocrity to cyberspace. If cyberspace evolves into something like modern television to the n th power, it will not be because of government regulation or notions of political correctness or censorship. Rather, it will be because the requirements of commercialism were allowed to define the parameters of the evolution.


Just as the commercialization of cyberspace taints credibility and limits access – certainly two critical concerns in the educational use of cyberspace – market interests on the Internet also exacerbate the serious issues of surveillance and privacy. 4 At what point does the collection of marketing information for the purposes of targeting advertising become an affront to privacy and a constraint on educational opportunities? At what point do fears of possible surveillance begin to limit where individuals go and what they do in cyberspace?

To navigate through cyberspace, browsing through Websites and hyperdocuments, certainly has the feel of anonymity. Rarely is one asked to divulge their identity or their purpose. But despite the feel of anonymity, there is the concern that cyberspace may not be as anonymous as it seems. On one hand, a great part of the educational potential of cyberspace is that it is anonymous and there seems to be great public interest in maintaining that anonymous nature. But this is at odds with the real interests of commercial entities who wish to know as much as they can about the individuals who visit their sites and read their advertisements. To that end, technologies have been developed and the capabilities of browsers exploited to maintain a close track on who visits the Web and where they go.

Presently, many Websites have the capability of writing a small text file on a user’s hard drive when a connection to that site is made. The file, called a cookie (for no particular reason) may be sent from the site itself or from one or more of the banner advertisements located on the site. Cookies are also sent by some search engines, keeping track of the key words or topics accessed by the user. There is much misunderstanding about cookies, and we will address the problem of that misunderstanding in a moment, but briefly, this is what cookies can and cannot do: 5 Cookies were originally developed so that certain sites could store information like user identification numbers and passwords so that users would not have to retype certain information each time they visited the site. Cookies can also be used to track users’ activity on a certain site, recording which pages were visited and which were not, for example. In this way, they can be used for purposes of assessing site design and maintenance. Advertisers can also use cookies to track what banner advertisements a user has seen on a particular site, thus allowing the advertiser to transmit a greater variety of advertisements.

Until recently, the primary objection to cookies has been that they are placed on the user’s computer, most often without the user’s knowledge or consent. 6 Now, however, the use of cookies has become more sophisticated and more controversial. The ability of banner advertisements to send cookies, and the existence of a handful of companies that place advertisements on many Websites, raises the power and possibilities of these small, seemingly innocuous files. A cookie sent by an advertising agency that places a banner advertisement on a site (rather than a cookie sent by the site itself), can be used to create a profile of a user’s browsing across all the sites that also use that advertising company’s banner advertising. This allows for the targeting of ads across many Websites. It also keeps track of the user’s travels through cyberspace. Likewise, certain search engines construct profiles of users based on what they search for – search words or topics. This can be used to construct the individualized tailoring of searches based on past searches. It also constructs a detailed record of the kinds of information a specific individual seeks out.

Understandably, this raises some frightening surveillance and privacy concerns. What cookies and the computers a user connects to via the Internet cannot do, at least presently, is extract information from an individual’s computer. They cannot read the files on a user’s computer and cookies cannot be read by servers other than the ones that originally sent them. The data collected by cookies can, however, be linked with the information that all browsers reveal, and many sites record in log files, when connecting to a Website: the browser type, the computer’s network address and workstation name, 8 Since many computers are assigned to individual users and have static addresses and names, it is only a small step to connect a user’s real identity to the profiles developed by the extensive use of cookies.

Certainly, the use of cookies raises real concerns about the potential for serious invasions of privacy and the controlling hegemony of surveillance. Our concern is that as long as market forces play a dominant role in the operation of the Internet, there will always be the push to obtain more rather then less information about users and their activity in cyberspace. How this will play out technologically is hard to tell, but as ADknowlege states:” Frequency of exposure to advertising messages is the key to its effectiveness. Advertisers must be able to target within each Website for repeat visitors, for given ad banner exposure frequency…. Whether the technique to measure frequency is cookies or some other method, it is an essential component of the mainstreaming of Web media.” 9 And for all that this” measuring of frequency” may do to threaten privacy, we believe it will have serious educational implications as well. We will focus on two: the targeting of information and the fear of surveillance.

Targeting is the commercial practice of focusing on individuals’ interests and then presenting them with advertisements that address those interests. Push technologies accomplish much the same thing – after users establish interest profiles, only information relevant to those interests is” pushed” to the user. But where the practice of targeting is frightening is that this profiling is done externally from the user. Advertisers, the purveyors of search engines, and others interested in collecting such data, place individuals into predefined and necessarily simplistic, one-dimensional categories. They then target, and thus limit, the information the individual receives. It is particularly troublesome that such practices might be conducted by search engines. The price an individual may pay for a more efficient search may well be a severely restricted search. Certainly, problems of enormity plague cyberspace, but from an educational perspective, individuals, students in particular, must be taught and must practice creating their own delineations. The collection of data on individuals, exacerbated by the demands of commerce and advertising for the purpose of targeting information, can only serve to limit and restrict access to the wealth information available in cyberspace, which was its primary appeal in the first place.

Our second concern has to do with the extent to which it is possible for individuals to understand fully the consistently changing capabilities of new technologies. The nature of Information Technologies is that they collect, store, and manipulate data. And the extent to which they can perform these tasks changes exponentially with the increasingly sophisticated capabilities of the software and the hardware. Made more complicated by the required esoteric knowledge needed to understand IT, few users can be completely knowledgeable about just what their computers can and cannot do. In doing the research for this article, for example, not only was it extremely difficult to discover exactly how intrusive networked computers could be, but debates and revelations about those capabilities changed over the course of the writing.

The result of this understandable lack of technical knowledge is that most individuals do not know the degree to which they are under the surveillance of IT. To some young people this might be the license of blissful ignorance, but to many it looms as the probable surveillance of the technical panopticon. Concerns range from faculty members who worry they might accidentally stumble into an X-rated site and have to publicly explain themselves, to students who shy away from research into certain areas not approved by their teachers or administrators. Unfortunately, computers will always have a panoptic effect on users. It is not so much what computers can do, it is what individuals worry they might be able to do that controls behavior – controls that inevitably limit and restrain the full use of cyberspace as an educational resource. Despite the appearance of anonymity, there will persist the feeling, if not the reality, that a user’s movements in cyberspace will be tracked, recorded, and offered for sale.

The increased commercialization of cyberspace will most probably include greater surveillance because that will be necessary for commerce to operate successfully. But increasing surveillance will reduce the educational potential of the Internet. Whether offered fewer choices because of targeting, or being wary to continue lines of inquiry because of possibly being found out, commerce narrows opportunity.


We are not claiming that all commerce in cyberspace is bad or that there should be no commerce on the Net. Both of the authors have made purchases over the Net and found it convenient to do so; both have appreciated the ease of using commercial sites to research a particular company’s products. We see little threat if some portions of cyberspace become commercial. The strength of the Internet, especially from an educational perspective, is that it is decentralized and unregulated and some amount of commercialization clearly fits in with that unregulated approach. Our serious concern, however, is that cyberspace will become structurally commercialized. We can only see that this will result in a less decentralized and, inevitably, more regulated environment. This is the future we need to resist.

The costs of IT and the increasing commercialization of cyberspace can only dampen the educational potentiality of these technologies. While prohibitive costs leave entire groups of technological second class students in the educational dust, commercial interests in cyberspace raise serious concerns about credibility, surveillance, and access. Clearly there are levels of commercialization at stake here, and at each level the issues and the costs are different. There is the cost of capital in machines, software, upgrades; the cost of access fees to the Internet. There is the cost of credibility in corporate logos, sponsorships, and advertisements – the close relationship between education interests and business interests. And there is the cost in access, privacy, and freedom – three conditions essential to the educative process – of the surveillance and targeting strategies encouraged by business and commercial enterprises. In the commercial world of cyberspace, users do not just pay once, they pay again and again. Each time it is a dilution of the educational potential of the medium.


Burbules, N. C. and Callister, T. A. (1997) “Who lives here? Access to and credibility within cyberspace.” In Chris Bigum, Colin Lankshear, et al., (Eds.) Digital Rhetorics: New Technologies, Literacy, and Learning – Current Practices and New Directions Canberra: Department of Employment, Education, Training, and Youth Affairs/Brisbane, Queensland University of Technology.

Callister, T. A. and Burbules, N. C. (1996) “Public Spaces and Cyberspace: Issues of Credibility in Educational Technologies” Insights: A Publication Of The John Dewey Society For The Study Of Education And Culture, 32: 9 – 11.

Eichelberger, L. (1997)” The Cookie Controversy.”

Henry, J. (1963) Culture Against Man. New York: Random House.

Minow, N and Lamay, C. (1995) Abandoned in the Wasteland. New York: Hill and Wang.

Molner, A. (1996) Giving Kids the Business. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

© Copyright 1998 Electronic Journal of Sociology [IUICODE:]

Citation Format

Burbules, Nicholas & Callister, T. (1998). Paying the Piper: The Educational Cost of the Commercialization of the Internet. Electronic Journal of Sociology: 3, 3. [iuicode:]