Category Archives: Technology

Holding Our Brains in Our Hands

As you’re probably well aware, the robots have arrived, and they’re being marketed at our collective penchant for laziness, gussied up as “convenience.”

Cortana smartphone

The commercial was full of friendly voices, one belonging to a straight male human, the other to a feminized robot living in the human male’s smarphone. They have a conversation, or rather, the male voice asks the female voice to remember things for the slowly atrophying male voice’s brain.

“Cortana, next time my wife calls, remind me to tell her, Happy Anniversary.”

How is this easier? Does female robot secretary really make this process of remembering/doing more seamless? Employing Cortana to assist you with these tasks involves several steps:

Pushing buttons; talking into the phone; confirming that the phone heard you and interpreted your meaning correctly; saving this reminder appropriately; not accidentally activating an irrelevant app; and coming up with the idea one wants to remember in the first place.

The commercial wants us to think that Cortana is erasing the potential for human error, but technology itself is not infallible. What if the battery dies? What if your wife is waiting for you to call? What if relying on Cortana is ruining your marriage?

We’re uploading our memories; outsourcing key cerebral functions. Set a reminder for Cortana to sound the alarm! We’re the agents of our own destruction, depleting our capacity to remember how to be human.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Technology

Half-Baked Motherhood: Compromise & the Dough Boy

There’s a Pillsbury commercial that has been nagging at me to rail on it since late 2014. Here we are, three months later. No time like the present. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a clip of this commercial, so a description based on my memory of having seen it once will have to suffice.

A Commercial Mother encounters the three members of her family as she makes her way through the house. She tries in vain to get the attention of each:

  • Child #1 cannot hear for the headphones that keep him glued to the TV screen on which he’s playing a video game.
  • Child #2 charges down the stairs, nearly running into Mom as she texts on her smartphone.
  • Husband is changing the channels on the TV in the kitchen.

Instead of snatching the devices away from these rude family members like a sane person would, Commercial Mom sighs with an exasperation meant only to underline her infinite maternal patience. There’s even a smile creeping into the corners of her mouth. Oh, family members–can’t live with ’em, can’t get ’em to acknowledge your presence. 

Suddenly, a solution!

We see her pull a steaming sheet of something presumably delicious out of the oven. One by one, each family member unplugs themselves, the irresistible aromas drawing them to the dining room. The closing shot sees them all sitting together, face to face at last. “Nothing brings them to the table like Pillsbury.”

My eyes almost got stuck in the back of my head. I’m really glad I only saw this commercial once, or Feminist Rage and also a very high ophthalmology bill.

As alluded to previously, what I had hoped this mother had done was confiscate the offending devices that were turning her family members into offensive people. Nothing brings ’em to the table like dropping all their technology down the garbage disposal. Also, if we’re being reasonable about things, maybe they could have had a family discussion about why it’s a problem when you don’t acknowledge someone who is trying to talk to you. But no. Commercial Mom gives in to the socio-technological forces swirling around her and tries a different tactic to reach her goal of familial engagement.*

The message of the ad is if you can’t beat ’em, bake for them. Sacrifice. Work harder for what you want. Embrace your family’s foibles. Aren’t people these days a riot, with their technology and lack of interpersonal skills? Why, we should reward them with baked goods–and not just any baked goods, but par-baked goods that make your life of thankless sacrifice a little easier, more palatable. To get what you want–which is, apparently, not respect, but rather the physical presence of your family–you need to meet them more than half-way. You need to meet them half-baked.

What might be most troubling about the existence (and persistence) of this representation of American motherhood and winking maternal “wisdom” is

  1. Many mothers (parents, really) must identify with this representation
    and
  2. These women haven’t yet pushed back to a degree that would manifest itself in market research

Ads are not a mirror of the real world, instead tending to lag slightly behind cultural trends and social mores. But they also serve to reinforce kernels of truth in the collective lived experience. Too much money is riding on the ability of this ad and its representation of modern family life to resonate with its target market for it NOT to have sufficient market research behind it. Market research that told the Pillsbury executives that a significant chunk of American parents feel like the mother in this commercial. A feeling of futility that only our product can alleviate!

Parents in general will likely identify with the mother–so the market research would have shown. You want to be a close-knit family, have quality moments with your children, but modern technology is getting in the way. Luckily, Pillsbury is here to save the day, offering up a product as a solution to the problem the ad offers up on a platter.

This convenient confection is just the sticky substance that will keep your family unit together. If you value your family–if you’re a good mother–you will buy it. Motherhood is a goldmine of social anxieties,and Pillsbury knows it as well as we do.

So instead of the mother laying the smackdown in this commercial–which wouldn’t really present a problem that a Pillsbury product could solve–and teaching her family about the importance of NOT BEING RUDE and RESPECTING OTHER PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY THE PEOPLE WHO GIVE YOU THE LUXURY OF A MIDDLE-CLASS EXISTENCE…we get get the tired trope of sacrificial maternal compromise, repackaged & refrigerated for those struggling to parent the iGeneration.

*I am not making judgments about real-life parenting decisions. In situ, I’m sure plenty of great parents pick their battles and exhale their anger instead of making every moment a teaching one. In this deconstruction I am taking issue with the way the mass-media represents motherhood and family life as a social structure in which the mother is disrespected and then rewards her family for their rudeness. A representation that holds up motherhood as self-sacrificing and somehow still rewarding. A representation that holds up as relate-able, emulate-able, and Good a person who takes shit and bakes it into cookies.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Technology

Your bumper-sticker is yelling at my bumper sticker

After stumbling across what is I’m sure a small fraction of the vile, often shockingly incoherent trollspeak on twitter, I began to wonder if twitter itself as a platform was partially to blame.

Actually, what made me think of this was a bumper sticker on an SUV that had small words I couldn’t read fast enough framing a middle line of bold, larger font that screamed “CHILD DEATH” at me before it drove off. And that is what made me think of twitter and its trolls. Of all discourse that is a series of “blah blah blah INCENDIARY REMARK blah blah blah.” I still have no idea what that particular bumper sticker was trying to get at, expect my attention and possibly my (out)rage.

I see fewer and fewer bumper stickers. Maybe they don’t stick on the new-fangled metal they’re using to build cars these days. Maybe aesthetic tastes have shifted where I live where car adornment & self-expression is concerned. Or perhaps we have moved this type of discourse to other media…like twitter. It’s a leap, but I’m willing to go there, tenuous lines drawn taut across the metaphoric platforms, keeping me suspended between—never mind. [insert segue here]

Does twitter, by virtue of its strict limits on the space allowed to express oneself, somehow encourage this? At the very least, it facilitates sound-bytes of thoughts, conversation, and argumentation (if it can be called that). At least twitter, unlike bumper stickers, allows for immediate rebuttal. Although so do bumper stickers if you park your car long enough and the person you’ve pissed off has paper and pen handy. Or a bat.

My point is that twitter trollspeak, like some terse bumper stickers, is shaped by a medium that places a premium on efficiency of message. Logic is nice and all, but if you can make it fit, by all means dispense with it. And if you have strong feelings about something, perhaps you’re more likely to boil down those strong feelings into what is most likely to elicit a reaction: incendiary remarks.

When I was younger and coming into my own (extreme) opinions, before the tempering influence of college and then the real world, I proudly displayed a bumper sticker that read “If you’re against abortion, get a vasectomy.”

The fact that I put that out to the world makes me cringe now. Happily, it wasn’t there long. I removed it along with the bumper that bore it after a minor fender-bender, having come to my senses about such irksome, trite forms of “discourse.” An inflammatory bumper sticker was no way to get my message across, much less change anyone’s mind or influence public policy. Even more happily, by that time I had matured slightly in my politics and realized this phrase mis-represented my views, and moreover, assumed only people with penises were anti-choice. How’s that for gender and sex bias? (I hadn’t yet learned that the ERA was defeated largely due to a woman’s efforts.) Ah, ignorant youth…so loud and unproductive.

And that is how twitter trollspeak feels to me much of the time. Illogical, loud, unwilling to listen, and narrow-minded. Not to mention cruel and dangerous. Twitter as a genre and technological medium facilitates this type of “argumentation,” this type of expression. It allows for snippets of anonymous drivel and immediate responses and carpet bombings of bumper-sticker-level rhetoric. All without any windows to smash in retaliation. All we can throw at each other are words–and the threats they often carry.

I choose to believe we are smarter and more mature than this, or at least are capable of becoming so. It’s curious, this posited transference from bumper stickers to virtual reality. Media are not to blame–people and culture are. Bumper stickers and twitter and the rest are simply conduits, influencing the form messages may take, but not the messages themselves.

We make the messages. We can do better. Many people ARE doing better, but the trolls and their bumper sticker trollspeak remains an incessant cancer within public discourse.

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Filed under Contemporary, Media, Technology

Tone Deaf in the Twitterverse

Greetings from the quasi-technophobe who recently jumped back into the Twitterverse with both feet. Mostly, it’s been great. Great to be on Twitter as myself rather than a representative for an organization. Great to be finding links to articles I would have otherwise never come across. Great to be at least cogniscent of the many conversations surrounding recent (and ongoing) police brutality and the protests that have resulted.

There are many issues and realities and social movements to care about and engage with, and Twitter has been a useful tool to keep abreast on what’s out there, right here right now. But it is not the best for providing context to the 140 character conversations.

Not only context, but tone. Tone is difficult to read in a #hashtag, never mind 140 characters, unless you take the time to read all that has come before.

Sifting and scrolling through the history to find the beginning of a #hashtag is time-consuming work…work that often leads me to give it up in favor of other, more productive work [read: day job. or doing the dishes].

Showing solidarity when relatively tone-deaf and unable to unlock the mysterious secrets to tuning in is difficult. Google helps, but Twitter is immediate–in the time it takes to Google, the surge of collective mediated action might have passed, and the window of opportunity to participate is closed.

That’s not to say that #hashtags don’t resurface. Of course they do. It’s simply a momentary frustration, not knowing how to interact with the conversation, which faction you’re really a part of…it’s a problem of interpellation. When you can’t read the signs, how can you be interpellated, even if you’re looking for them?

An example – the Gamer Gate controversy. Today I came across two different #hashtags: #GamerGate and #StopGamerGate2014. After reading a few threads and questioning whether the people I follow were mistakes or right on, I found myself unable to figure out where either #hashtag positioned itself within the controversy.

Full disclosure: I am emphatically on the side of women, minorities, and others who are routinely marginalized & excluded by the dominant Gaming community. 

My problem is I’m not sure which #hashtag to use on Twitter to symbolize this particular brand of solidarity. I certainly don’t want to accidentally support the misogynists by using the “wrong” #hashtag.

Now, #GamerGate seems to be a neutral shorthand referring to the controversy as a whole, but the addition of #StopGamerGate2014 seems to position itself against #GamerGate, indicating that there are two sides here and that #GamerGate is on one of them. BUT WHICH ONE AARRRHHGGGH???

I was at a loss trying to figure it out within the Twitterverse. I had to get all space-time parallel internet and reach into the Googleverse to grasp a modicum of understanding on the distinction. Smart this did not make me feel. Naive and unequal to the technology at hand, yes, but smart? Nope.

I’m adrift & tonedeaf in the Twitterverse at times, and desperate for the Rosetta Stone that will make sense of the noise, cacophony of irony, and unlock the contextual secrets of all these important conversations.

But hey, it’s only been a few days. Check back in a week or so and I may have become acclimated to the language, solved this little conundrum, and finally started tweeting with confident abandon on the side of What I Believe In.

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NKLA and Participatory Advertising

In the age of the internet, advertisers can rely on consumers to do a lot of work. Because people in this hyper-connected, digital culture are in the habit of constantly looking things up, only to forget them because they can call back that knowledge at will (think wikipedia) less and less information can be provided in advertisements. It is up to the consumer to figure out what’s being sold. What the message is.

To over-simplify a bit, this trend started nearly 100 years ago, when advertisements became less about long-form essays detailing the benefits of a product, and more about images that conveyed the feelings one would get by consuming said products. Now, there’s a type of ad that uses a combined strategy of images and limited accompanying text, relying on consumers to either guess at or go looking for the message and even the very product it’s attached to. These advertisements don’t even have to be about selling something. They can be about conveying an idea; making it “go viral.” It’s propaganda that masquerades as subtle, all the while hoping the masses will whip out their smartphones, find the hidden message on the internet, and hit themselves over the head with it.  Oh, and tell their friends, preferably via tweet. The marketers have passed off their work to us.

Take, for example, the NKLA billboards that popped up in the greater Los Angeles area. These consist of black-and-white photographs of cats and dogs, the letters “NKLA,” and a tiny emoticon-like logo in the bottom corner that suggests a doggie face. That’s it. What the hell are these for? Is it a new clothing line? A rap-group? Soap? Unless the viewer of these ads already knows what they’re supposed to take away from this collection of signifier-less signs, it’s a mystery. And I’d argue it’s designed to be obscure in order to pique the viewer’s interest, igniting a burning curiosity that eventually forces them to take to the interwebs and find out what these billboards and bus-stop ads are supposed to mean. It’s designed to force participation on the part of the view–or in the case of an ad for a product, the potential consumer.

Far be it from me to do the same thing and keep you, my imagined reader, in suspense. It turns out that these “NKLA” ads are for a campaign promoting the idea that no “viable” pet animals be killed in the city of Los Angeles. Here, you don’t even have to go looking. The campaign is backed by a coalition of like-minded organizations, some corporate and some non-profit. What they’re really selling/proposing is an old idea: eugenics. Like Bob Barker used to remind us after every “The Price is Right,” they want us to remember to spay or neuter our pets, and these organizations are mounting an effort to make that easier for people to do. I won’t get into the politics of this or why I find this problematic. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s enough to note that this is not a revolutionary idea that this campaign is trying to promote. Rather, it is the method of promotion and dissemination of this old message that’s somewhat revolutionary. It’s not word of mouth; it’s words from technology.

It is curious that the coalition’s strategy was to rely on viewers to figure out what campaign they were seeing. To do the work to figure out what the message was. Now that is some clever propaganda, and a risky move. Predicting the crowd is not an easy thing to do. And baiting them to do what you want them to do is arguably harder. If not for our digital, internet-connected, give-me-the-info-now culture, this would have no chance of working, of getting the message across. The images would just sit there, not being “read;” not being understood as their makers intended. The message would remain un-conveyed, or at least misinterpreted by the many consumers who were now going to be sorely disappointed the next time they tried to find NKLA’s newest album release.

This type of advertising strategy implicates the viewer–it requires that they participate. It demands their effort and their involvement in the campaign itself. They are part of the advertising team. It is self-directed marketing. Only those with the curiosity bug will exert the effort to get the message. It is self-selected, in a way, as it is more likely that someone with a soft spot for vaguely sad-looking pet animals will be inclined to take the time to find out what those puppies and kitties are trying to tell them. The black-and-white images help set the down-and-out tone, but that only really clicks and becomes part of the message when the viewer looks on the internet and finds out what the ad campaign is “selling”–the idea of a society in which no animals qualifying for the “pet” category have to be killed. (I won’t hold my breath for an “unhappy cows” spin-off.)

It’s all quite clever. And would seem to usher in a new era of marketing methodology.*  The consumer is the partial-producer of the advertisement that encourages them to buy (or in the case of NKLA, buy in to an idea and possibly become involved in either materially realizing it or further disseminating it). The consumer becomes a partial producer of the ad’s message because only after going through the effort of finding the message does the entire campaign gain its layers of meaning. And now, the idea has another follower. Perhaps another member of the movement who is willing to participate even further. Because that viewer searched and found the site and read it and understands. Understands that they now have to decide whether to cruelly say “no” to a campaign that is only trying not to have stray pet animals needlessly die to make room for more stray pet animals. The manipulation is palpable, but is over-ridden by the ostensibly “good” message that is so benign and “right” that no one who took the trouble to find it could possibly, in good conscience, disagree with it. Propaganda’s sneaky that way.

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*Or maybe this strategy has been employed before. It would be worth looking into from a history-of-advertising perspective.

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Filed under Animals, Contemporary, Technology