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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One Ping Only, Vasili

A few weeks ago I met up with some friends and we were walking through the busy Gallery Place / Chinatown area, all three of us heads down studying our various hand-helds (two iPhones and an Android). I joked that the app that we need is something like the range-finders from the Alien movies, only that does picture-in-picture on our phones so we can see what’s coming without having to look up from our immersion in our respective virtual worlds as we walk through heavy pedestrian traffic.

The absurd extent of the anxiety of influence: not only if you’ve had a good idea can you count on someone having already had it, but if you make a joke about something absurd, you can rest assured that someone is already doing that too. It turns out there is already a sonar app for the iPhone (Frucci, Adam, “iPhone’s Sonar Ruler App Measures Distance Using Sound,” Gizmodo, 21 August 2009).

(Jokes about iPhone apps follow the same formula as jokes about hitherto unnamed but always Johnny-on-the-spot when convenient members of the Smurf village: think of an absurd or inappropriate function, append “smurf”; e.g. Cuckolding Smurf finds life in the Smurf village paradisiacal; or sumrfs keep themselves free of tropical disease by regularly licking Quinine Smurf; In the case of iPhone apps, name an absurd function, then say “There’s an app for that.”)