Technology and the Profound, Part II: Apple’s Retort

A certain sector of nostalgic curmudgeons among us is driven to distraction by the fact that many people today are engaged in a significant amount of interpersonal communication and interaction with their environment mediated by their mobile devices and web technologies. This annoyance that the young people today don’t interact in the time-honored ways is expressed in a number of criticisms: that they are anti-social, isolated, rude, sedentary, disengaged, aesthetically foreclosed, temporally scattered, attention deficient and consumed by trite distractions. Sherry Turkle, the dean of cellular woe, was taped just last week by the New York Times to lament the presidential selfie. She goes so far as to suggest “device-free zones” as “sacred spaces” (“The Documented Life“, 16 December 2013, A25).

U.S. President Barack Obama, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron take a selfie at Nelson Mandela's funeral, Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 December 2013, by Steve Harvey

Back in June I wrote about two popular memes expressing this dismay and posed Apple’s then airing ad for the iPhone 5 as a corrective (“Technology and the Profound“, 18 June 2013). Watching the ad again now, it does address a number of these criticisms, but it is unclear whether the creators were thinking of something else and it is merely inadvertent how well the various episodes of the commercial line up with the criticisms; whether they were very subdued in their response; or whether something in between: they were generally aware of some negative perceptions of their product and attempting to show the iPhone in a sentimental, social, generative light without quite explicitly matching their critics.

With their new Christmas advertisement there’s no mistaking it: Apple it using its Madison Avenue genius to directly engage this debate. And for its emotional delicacy, it’s quite a salvo.

We are presented with exactly the teen that critics of our technological mediation obsession portray: bored, disengaged, one hand always unfree, constantly removing himself from important family events to fiddle with his device. But then, a third of the way through the commercial, the reveal: all those moments when he wouldn’t put down his phone, when he dropped out of family events, what he was actually doing was making a very personal video Christmas card to the entire family. We now rewatch all the moments from the first part of the commercial from a new perspective — in both the positioning of the camera, and in our understanding of what’s going on. As the mise en abyme — our protagonist’s video within the video — ends, he signs off with a bit of video of himself, the teenage veneer of boredom now replaced by an unselfconscious, sheepish happiness and pride. The title of the commercial is even “Misunderstood”. Not only is the teenage experience misunderstood by the adults around him, not only are his actions misunderstood, but here is the cutting edge of this soft light and sentimentality play. The title is not just descriptive of the events of the commercial: it is outwardly directed: it is an accusation against the critics of these technologies for which the events of the ad are the argument: you misunderstand what we are doing with these technologies; you mischaracterize the effects they are having on us.

I’ll add a personal story here, lest you write Apple’s commercial off as a contrivance of corporate propaganda. Toward the end of my college years I attended a birthday party. It began, as such things often do, as a late afternoon back yard cookout. But just after sunset one of the organizers brought out a slide projector and for about a half-hour told stories and played music while projecting onto the white wooden siding of the large side of the house photographs from the recent life of our celebree. It was beautiful and sentimental and poignant and really funny and just a wonderful celebration of this person — so much more so than had we just stood around in the yard eating hot dogs and getting slightly buzzed and then going through the heavily scripted song and cake ritual of birthdays. In other words, had we all only lived in the moment, it would have been just another meaningless collegiate afternoon. It was specifically the documentary consciousness and all those interruptions over the years and the need to share and the clever exhibitionism and the devices that created that evening’s sacred space with its deeply focused consciousness, its break from the ordinary, its reflection and appreciation.

This was the late 1990s, so the technologies of this presentation were the old ones: gelatin emulsion film, shoebox archives dug through over the course of weeks, order forms printed on the back of envelopes, photo developing booths isolated in the middle of the shopping plaza parking lots, cardboard mounted diapositives, that beige slide projector with the torus of black slide slots protruding from the top. So the documentary intrusions were fewer, the pace of production and archiving less frenetic, the sharing less ubiquitous. But also less of the life was available, there was no parallax view, the required bravery of the performance was greater (a slideshow!? so hipster).

This is what I really like about Steven Johnson’s response to Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (“Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social“, The New York Times, 20 June 2010, p. BU3): Johnson frankly concedes that yes, we are losing something. But loss is not the entirety of the transformation. We are also gaining something. And neither the loss of the detractor, nor the gain of the enthusiast are to be weighed in isolation. The proper debate is: is what we have gained worth what we have lost?

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The Sadism of Joss Whedon

After the first episode of the Dollhouse I was markedly not impressed. It may not ever be explicit in the plot, but it’s certainly clear external to the plot that the Dollhouse is a whore house. That’s the whole premise of the tantalizing advertising campaign. They are not delivering hostage negotiators or assassins. The hard drives in the mezzanine laboratory are full of sex kitten fantasy lives. In the flashback scene to Echo’s induction into the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt offers her the chance to make amends, but Echo objects that she doesn’t really have a choice, does she? It’s third-world sex slavery brought to the high-tech first world.

But I think that Joss Whedon is not confused about whether or not he’s an artist. He’s fully aware that it’s his job to turn out a product that gathers eyeballs to the FOX ad stream. And a house full of stoned-eyed, will-less, child-like babes wandering aimlessly in their yoga outfits clearly has appeal for a certain demographic. Apparently dropping the false power suite professionalism in favor of after-hours yoga-clad submissiveness is the new yuppie sexuality.

Where Whedon is an artist is that in his productions, the joke is on the studio and on us. It was no accident that the premiere of a series that’s about a bunch of sex slaves leads with an episode where one of the slaves is sent out as a hostage negotiator instead of on a sexual escapade. In the final scene where Echo goes into the kitchen to retrieve the kidnapped girl from the refrigerator, I expected the refrigerator to be upright against the wall, like refrigerators usually are, but instead it was horizontal on the ground — just like the sleeping chambers to which the Actives are sent at day’s end. “He doesn’t return them. He keeps them — until he’s done with them, or until they’re worn out,” Echo says of the kidnapper. Just like the Dollhouse will use up the Actives. The Actives are a bunch of sexual kidnap victims and episode one was Whedon accusing his entire audience of fantasizing their sexual molestation. It’s the same thing that Oliver Stone did with Natural Born Killers.

Combined with tonight’s episode, I’d say that the series is off to a pretty Sadistic start.

And is it just a coincidence that Harry Lennix, a total Barack Obama look- and sound-alike, has been cast as Echo’s handler? Does the entire country get its mind wiped clean and returned to a child-like state of naïveté after each mission? But at least we’ve got a fatherly overseer in whom we can place our complete trust.

Television Disbelief

First, I can’t believe that Man v. Food is going to Beth’s Cafe. Gawd, I spent some of the best nights of my life there. Second, I can’t believe that Travel and Discovery have scheduled No Reservations and Man vs. Wild head-to-head. I have no idea how I’m going to decide between Anthony Bourdain eating a whole roast pig and Bear Grylls eating a decomposing boar.

Have a Gay New Year

Anderson Cooper and Cathy Griffith's 2008-9 New Year's coverage on CNN

S. and I are watching Anderson Cooper and Cathy Griffith’s New Year’s show on CNN. Anderson Cooper catches a lot of flack for being high-profile and still in the closet, but he has pulled off something totally post-gay culture: he’s come out of the closet without having to have a press conference or a cover page interview with People. He’s got Cathy Griffith as his fag hag and he keeps on cutting to interviews with on-scene drag queens (Su-She in New Orleans is going to be lowered in rhinestone covered shoe in lieu of a ball or somesuch). CNN is having a totally edgy, gay New Year’s special, nothing like that middle-America friendly, stated, whitebread bullshit going on with Ryan Seacrest and Dick Clark on ABC.

The default assumption hitherto, absent active countervailing action, is heterosexuality. By having engineered a salami-slice coming-out, absent the appropriate ceremony of homosexuality, Anderson Cooper is thwarting this cultural system. I mean, we live in an era when drag queens are a regular feature of CNN’s New Year’s coverage, thanks to Anderson Cooper.

Cathy Griffith is fucking hilarious. She blurted out that they should cut away from a call with Wolf Blitzer because he was boring her, called out CNN’s on-scene reporter Richard Quest for being loaded and has admonished Anderson a number of times, “Wake up, grandpa,” for not getting one of her pop culture references. Anderson Cooper is trying as hard as he can to play along with her antics — which he obviously enjoys — but he has no emotional range.

So here’s to 2009 and the continuance of the revolution in morality.

Update, 12:57 AM, 1 January 2009: Kathy just objected to Anderson that “I don’t come to your job and knock the dicks out of your mouth.” That’s one of my favorite insults.

Commercial Pleasures

21 May 2008, David Cook wins American Idol

When I first moved to D.C. I had a roommate who was such a Redskins fan that I almost couldn’t be in the house when a game was on, so loudly did he scream at the television. I didn’t get it. There’s no excuse for getting that emotionally wrapped up in something so alien from one’s own life. Then I discovered Ninja Warrior on G4 (G4 | wikipedia). S. and I scream and wave our hands at the television with an increasing fanaticism as the contestant nears the finish line and the announcer goes ballistic with Japanese excitement.

Last night when they declared David Cook the winner of American Idol I lost it in a way that I never have before over television. From the time it of the final six (Carle, Brook, Castro, Syesha, Archuleta and Cook) it has been apparent to both S. and I that it was going to come down to a contest of the Davids and both of us have pretty much figured that Archuleta had the teenie-bops with their text-dexterous fingers all lined up and thus was going to win. Last week when Syesha was voted off I though Archuleta was going to win. Cook seems burned out and you could see the disappointment he had with himself after many of his performances. Meanwhile Archuleta’s been on the rise. “Stand by Me” couldn’t have been a better choice for him. Then on Tuesday night Archuleta’s rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” was perfect. Meanwhile Mr. Cook’s songs were sufficiently mediocre that after his final performance (“The World I Know“) he too was so certain that he had lost that the moment he finished his song, before Randy Jackson had said his first “Yo,” Mr. Cook started to cry. The judges all gave him consolation complements.

And I had long since made my peace with Mr. Cook coming in second. He has a tendency toward incipient pop rock as it is and being saddled with the obligations of being the American Idol was only going to further hamper him. They were going to hoist a few television commercials and a really marketable, over-produced album on him, when what he needs is to get together with someone edgier, someone who realizes that the explosive, dramatic power ballads are Mr. Cook’s forte. Better that Mr. Archuleta ends up the America Idol. He’s already a one-man boy band.

And so last night when Ryan Seacrest started, “And the winner is … ,” I interjected “Archuleta.” “David”; Seacrest paused having revealed nothing with two finalists both named David. Again I finished his sentence. “Archuleta.” When Mr. Seacrest finally let out “Cook” I leapt off the sofa. “No fucking way!” I shouted in disbelief. After fore explicatives and expressions of disbelief I tuned around in a circle and stared at the television in disbelief. Out of 97.5 million votes, Mr. Cook won 54.75 million to Mr. Archuleta’s 42.75 million, or 56 percent of the vote, a 12 million vote margin of victory. I was sure that David Cook was going to lose, but he won and in the end it wasn’t even close.

And Mr. Cook thought he knew he had lost as well. He seemed resigned to his fate and already congratulatory toward Mr. Archuleta as Mr. Seacrest taunted them with the results. I think it was the shock as much as the adulation and excitement that caused Mr. Cook to become so emotional after the announcement.

This is part justice and part tragedy. Mr. Cook is 25 years old. He got a degree in graphics design, but before settling into the nine-to-fiver he told himself that he was going to give music a few more years to see if he could make it work. One of his friends and a band-mate had already given up on music and gone to real work. Mr. Cook was nearing the end of his experiment and already had his alternative waiting in the wings. He’s been given a new lease on his dream. On the other hand, his older brother, Adam, is dying o brain cancer. I heard, I think it was his mother, say that it’s like heaven and hell: for David to be doing so well while things are going so poorly for Adam. I can’t imagine the survivor’s guilt Mr, Cook must be feeling in front of his brother. It has been an emotional rollercoaster for Mr. Cook and his family.

How did it happen? Always the political blogger — can’t avoid analyzing election returns. A few episodes ago I saw a sign waving in the audience: “Cougars for Cook.” The average age of an American Idol viewer is significantly up — witness moi. I guess the cougars overruled the teenie-bops. The other factor was his trio of performances early in the season: Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” the Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I think he never did anything so spectacular as “Billie Jean” and he tired as the season wound to its climax, but on those three he built a winning reputation.

I took a little walk this afternoon to go buy lunch and some coffee. I found my pace brisk and my thoughts buoyant. In the background of my mind, David Cook had won, and it has caused the slightest uplift in my mood all day long. It’s stupid I know, to be such a fan-boy. But I can’t help it: I really like David Cook.

David Cook

Okay, okay … dawg … I’ve become obsessed with American Idol.

I know, it’s an embarrassing shame and I tried to resist, just like I tried to resist Sex and the City, but the siren song of popular culture proved too powerful. S. spent a few weekdays with her parents who have been fans for a number of seasons and she came back transformed. The damn show is two nights a week and they draw it out like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and there are way too many chirpy and inspirational types breathlessly disgorging their fame-whore dreams to Ryan Seacrest. But it’s on and our apartment is small.

But that wouldn’t be enough to turn me into the crazy fanatic that I have become. For that, what was required was contestant David Cook (American Idol | Wikipedia). At numerous points in my life I have been aware that some local talent — a fellow college student playing around the venues of the college town, that ensemble band playing at the dark, crumbling and sticky performance spaces — was more than just an amateur like the rest, but something totally amazing. I think that Mr. Cook is such an act and somewhere in Tulsa is a cadre of small time fans lamenting that they are about to lose their intimate treasure to mass popularity.

His command of the physical and emotional repertoire of rock and roll is as developed as any presence I have ever seen. He knows how to make out with the mic, he knows the seductive tough guy expressions and he knows all the dramatic gestures designed to leave you with the impression that rock and roll is an elemental force and the performer some sort of conjurer (hence the concert special effect of the pillar of fire). Taking his queues, I remember his performances as bigger than they were (wasn’t the wind blowing in the performance of “Eleanor Rigby“? Did he pull some Neo maneuver?).

The outstanding thing about Mr. Cook is that he’s doing covers and even then his arrangements are lifted from someone else — his version of “Day Tripper” is lifted from White Snake. His arrangement of “Billie Jean” is Chris Cornell’s. But almost without exception, he does a way better version of the song than either the original or the cover he is using. As Lionel Richie said of Mr. Cook’s performance of “Hello” — a creepy song rendered acceptable — “David just played it as if it was his song from the beginning — there was no Lionel Richie involved.”

I have been going through an anti-Beetles phase for some years now — too much of the sock-hop sound that preceded them, too trite of subject matter, guess I’m a Stones man — but in Mr. Cook’s versions of “Day Tripper” and especially “Eleanor Rigby” instead of a whining barbershop quartet, I hear the darkness of the lyrics of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but sung in a style that maps it into the field of such songs by Depeche Mode or Nine Inch Nails or stuff from the dark side of the singer-song-writer tradition, songs about foundering and folly.

I have always thought that Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was one of the best dance songs ever recorded, but I have also had to overlook the sleazy lyrics. In Michael Jackson’s hands it’s a song about a man trying to avoid the responsibility of parenthood, an effect magnified by the video. In Jackson’s version “the kid is not my son” is a lie told to a paternity inquest.

In Mr. Cook’s version (I have bought the complete studio version from iTunes) the drama of the love affair comes to the fore and the issue of paternity becomes a subordinate part of the narrative. It’s a song about the irresistibility of desire and that old cliché, the femme fatal. The narrator wakes to his senses from the intoxication of sexuality too late, with his future having receded from his grasp. The pregnancy and the child aren’t shirked responsibility, so much as the crushing consequences of fate and the inescapable demands of animality and the body. “The kid is not my son” becomes the primal psychological denial of a man who knows the truth (“My baby cried / his eyes were like mine”) contending with his powerlessness before the forces of his own nature.

Mr. Cook emphasized the ambiguity of having been designated “the one” under vastly different circumstances and plays with the timeline. The second line of the song he asks “What do you mean ‘I am the one?'” The first time it is disbelief at having been singled out by someone desirable beyond his attainability. The second time around it means he is the father of Billie Jean’s child. Possibilities open, possibilities are foreclosed. And the song plays with the chronology, one time leading the listener to believe that they met at the dance, had a brief affair and now she has caught up to him with the baby in tow. In a second telling is seems more as if she seduces him on the dance floor and there confronts him that she is no stranger, but someone with whom he has a past. In the face of seduction and desire and our wildest emotions, how tenuous is our grasp on reality? The absurdity of the song’s admonition to “Always think twice” is underscored by Rashomon, confusion and the loss of a linear, fixed point of reference in any sort of timeline.

Al this was always in the song, but in Michael Jackson’s version it is lost amidst the dance beat. By making it a ballad and adding his cataclysmic voice to it, Mr. Cook has exposed the previously obscured aspects of the song.

Anyway, here’s his Idol oeuvre:

Happy Together (The Turtles)
All Right Now (Free)
Hello (Lionel Richie)
Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)
Day Tripper (The Beatles)
Billie Jean (Michael Jackson)
Little Sparrow (Dolly Parton)
Innocent (Our Lady Peace)
Always Be My Baby (Mariah Carey)
The Music of the Night (Andrew Lloyd Webber)

It’s not all great. He botches the performance of “Innocent,” but the studio version has become a favorite of mine. And nothing is as good as his rendition of “Billie Jean.” S. and I have investigated some of his pre-Idol stuff and it’s pretty pedestrian. Too much typical harlequin romance songs. Hopefully after his run on American Idol he has the good sense to find his way to a decent producer (may I suggest Trent Reznor) and avoid signing a contract to do a Ford commercial.

This week is going to be Neal Diamond. If only they were taking requests. Actually, nevermind, I wouldn’t know where to start.

Ryan Seacrest’s little trick during week eight of initially sending Mr. Cook to the bottom three only to correct himself later and swap Mr. Cook into the safe group almost killed me. It’s driving me so crazy that I may have to text “vote” to whatever number they throw up on the screen. I just hope they don’t start dispensing commands to run off a cliff because with my case of the screaming meemies I just might do that too.