Higher-Educated Consumers


Six new computers appeared at the offices of NYU’s computer science department last week, a goodwill donation from Microsoft worth about $12,000. Each machine (a Gateway) came preloaded with the Microsoft NT operating system, enabling the department to develop applications on the platform. Earlier this year, Columbia’s Center for New Media won a $2.3 million grant from chip-maker Intel for free machines. To make sure no one confused the identity of the benefactor, each computer came with the Dell logo replaced by a prominent “Donated by Intel” sticker.

Is this corporate generosity or a form of technological colonization? With increasing coordination and funding, companies like Microsoft and Intel are turning toward universities as the next–and most captive–market for their wares. The examples are legion. Indiana University worked out a cut-rate deal with the software behemoth to supply Microsoft Office and Windows 98 to its 114,000 students and faculty effectively for free. Meanwhile, the University of Texas business school struck a deal with Dell for low-priced laptops–then mandated that all entering students buy one. The April 24 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education ( details one of the most glaring incentives for academics, a Microsoft “Academic Cooperative,” which awards computer science professors $200 when they mention Microsoft programming tools in a scholarly presentation.

“This whole gift relationship is corrupt–it’s technological bribery,” says Nathan Newman, program director for the activist organization Net Action. “Imagine you’re a businessman in Indianapolis, and you have to have your books kept. Are you going to keep using Lotus when everyone you hire out of IU has Excel training?” Newman asks. “When you turn the university into a monopoly environment, you’re turning the whole economy of that state.”

Gary Chapman, a University of Texas professor and head of the school’s Project 21st Century, which studies the effects of computers in society, likens these “ominous developments” to professional sports: stealing a page from Nike or Adidas, Microsoft and Intel can remake schools into walking advertisements by outfitting them in the newest, best, and most prominently labeled gear possible. “Because of the intense competition in the market, getting [their machines] into schools is one way to seed the industry with a new user base,” Chapman adds.

But the real question is, Do universities have any choice? “As federal funds have shrunk, educational institutions have to look beyond the government for support,” says John Pavlik, head of Columbia’s Center for New Media. “Tuition dollars just aren’t enough” to meet the cost of keeping pace. In fact, says Pavlik, technology gifts and deals to schools are not only rampant, but fundamentally necessary to their operations. “We’re getting state-of-the-art technology [from Intel]. If we had to keep buying all of it, we wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Any recent college graduate could tell you that Apple Computer has been working the education market since the ’80s. Back then, it almost seemed an “altruistic move” on Apple’s part to supply schools with cheap machines, says Chapman. What changed? “We were more naive in those days,” he adds. “Now, because of the concerns about Microsoft and market dominance, we pay more attention.”

The solution, say some academics, is apparent: don’t play favorites. “We make it a point to get one of everything–that’s our mandate,” says Ken Perlin, the head of NYU’s Center for Advanced Technology (CAT). The CAT lab, NYU’s computer science department, and the Interactive Telecommunications Program all invest in as many platforms and technologies as possible. Richard Cole, chair of NYU’s computer science department (which received the six free machines), sees that donation as fostering diversity–not monopoly. Coupled with gifts and discounted machines from Sun, Apple, and Netscape, Microsoft’s largesse actually “widens the choice” for students, says Cole.

While a healthy diversity sounds appealing, it could create a logistical nightmare for large universities, many of which want to standardize their software in order to make it easier for students and faculty to trade information. It’s clearly time for close scrutiny about what gifts to admit at the university gate. “I’m not paranoid” about what software to buy, says Red Burns at NYU’s ITP. Maybe she should be.

Aural Erotica

For her erotica Web site Marilyn’s Room, launching this Wednesday, writer and online developer Marilyn Lewis is banking that a whole market of “anxious” online readers prefer their sex orally–er, make that spoken.

Unlike the raft of XXX sites that let it all hang out in raunchy graphics, Marilyn’s Room will highlight RealAudio stories and interviews with erotica writers, filmmakers, photographers, and sex-advice authors. “We’re going after the female market by focusing on the art and lit of erotica–we want to encourage people who might not go to regular sex sites,” says Lewis. In addition to whispered sweet nothings, the site will highlight vintage photo erotica and pieces culled from erotic books. For those who prefer their arousal off- line, users will be able to sign up for subscriptions to zines like EIDOS (Everybody Is Doing Outrageous Sex) and purchase indie videos.

The weekly broadcasts from Marilyn’s Room will be free for the first month. Afterward, Lewis expects to charge $9.95 for monthly access to the site–which seems, from a totally unscientific (and strictly professional) sampling, the going rate for cyberporn. Lewis is no novice to nooky:, a softcore Web soap and CD-ROM she helped create, won the Consumer Electronics Award for Best Interactive CD-ROM of 1997.

Lewis is confident that the demure Marilyn’s Room will survive amid the glut of exposed flesh online, especially in light of the success of local “literate smut” magazine, which ventured into similar territory last year. “We want to be a community for erotica,” she says.

Signal and Noise

  • Dwarfed: “Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf” is a semi-regular guest on the Howard Stern show, and as of last week was also the hands-down front-runner of People magazine’s 3rd Annual Most Beautiful People poll online, with over 160,000 votes (trumping Leo, who hovered down at the 7241 mark at press time). The “Hank” campaign was the brainchild of a Howard Stern fan who used his Web site to drum up support for the vertically challenged inebriate. Stern himself took notice and called on his legion of fans to stuff the ballot box. Last Tuesday, the magazine took the poll offline for a few hours because the demand got so intense
  • Crash Course: The final lecture of MOMA’s vanguard “Technology in the 1990s” series may be the best–phase-musician Steve Reich and artist Beryl Korot will discuss and demo their “documentary video opera” about the implications of 20th-century technology, from the Hindenburg to Dolly, on May 11
  • GearHead: Interval Research alum Romy Achituv promises that his interactive performance piece ABACUSPARTS, opening this weekend at the Kampo Cultural Center on Bond Street, will feature a handheld scanner, military gas masks, and “the human figure as database.” Call 718-488-0137 for details
  • Even the Brochure Looks Like Basquiat: master designers David Carson, Clement Mok, Rodney Greenblat, and others convene for a School of Athens–like confab at the Edgewise Conference, May 6 and 7 at the Puck Building. At $495 a ticket, you’ll probably want to eavesdrop from Houston Street. Info at [email protected]