Lately, I've been amazed by the contrast between some recent TV spots for the iPhone and the Android. Check these out:
Directed by Sam Mendes, the "Face Time" commercial for iPhone 4 (selling its video chat feature) offers little surprise for me (except for the possible cameo by Matt Damon signing at the end). It shows this device as enhancing relationships, between lovers, families, generations -- even between people who can't talk.
In typical Apple fashion, the spot is meant to make technology seem friendly. Human. And as familiar as our past. It's even scored to a nostalgic tune Louis Armstrong first recorded in the late 20s (don't know the date of the version in the spot).
Fittingly, I've read that this tune was a favorite in the Great Depression, as a sort of morale-boosting, cheer-up song. (Though the wish-you-were-here look the woman at the end shares with the guy in the army pants also made me think of the WWII era).
The spots for the Droid phones are another story altogether. The first, shot in a cold, grayish-blue light, reminds me as much of a science fiction dystopia as it does an office setting. Rather than promising to warm your heart, this phone makes you "an instrument of efficiency" -- perhaps like a BMW. The second Droid spot reminds me of that scene in Alien, where the creature first attacks and invades a crew member's body.
And the Droid machine assumes control over the humans (rather than vice versa), transforming them into parts of itself. When the Borg did something similar in Star Trek, it was supposed to be frightening. Here it's celebrated.
Yet, alienating or not, these spots certainly haven't hurt sales. During the first and second quarter of 2010, the Droid sold more smart phones than Apple. Though many chalk up the phone's ascendance to the fact that the iPhone is saddled with AT&T as its carrier, it would appear, for now at least, that resistance to the Droid is futile.
Cyborgs vs. Regular Folks
What's interesting from a cultural aspect about these commercials is that they seem inspired by two views about our relation to technology. Apple is a great example of technological humanism -- the machine as a cuddly friend, that enhances the joy of warm feelings.
Droid, on the other hand, celebrates its otherness. It is we who adapt to, and are are transformed by, its power. This view is often characterized by the term "transhumanism." Here his how Daniel Pinchbeck, one of the trend's critics, describes it:
"The transhumanists believe our biological limits should be overcome through mechanical means. We are too dense, too cumbersome in our inherited meatsuits, trapped in what John Smart calls 'slowspace.' Immersed in virtual realities or fused with artificial intelligence agents -- or some other technological genie -- we will attain a speedier, snazzier state of being." (p. 104)
Are We All Cyborgs Now?
But what sorts of benefits might be hoped for by those who are bullish on the mating of person with machine? Way back in the early 90s, Donna Haraway wrote in her prophetic "Cyborg Manifesto" that we were all already "fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs."
Such a new state of being, brought on by our increasingly deeper relationship with technology, she theorized, could make us at home with "permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints." "For us," she wrote, "machines can be prosthetic devices, intimate components, friendly selves."
This brings to mind transformations in everyday speech I've witnessed. It used to be when you said someone "was nothing but a robot", you meant the person was unimaginative, stiff and conformist.
Now when you say, perhaps in a work context, "the guy's a machine", it's high praise. It's a way of indicating speed, productivity, determination -- and grace under pressure.
All of which reminds me of a story the poet Elaine Equi told me about shopping for vitamins in a health food store at the very beginning of the 90s. Suddenly it seemed nearly all the supplements had become "super" or "mega" formulas with dosages many times over the minimum daily requirement. "Who would want these?" she asked.
"Oh," a salesperson replied, "those are vitamins for the 90s. You're going to need them."
From steroids in sports to plastic surgery in movie stars, a constant source of debate and scandal has been the obsession with self-enhancement to achieve that competitive edge. In this light, even the most extreme technophilia is no mystery. Machines and other add-ons are loved for the extra power they promise.
So maybe the Droid spots reinforce something many already feel. That today, it may not be enough to be just human anymore.