I’ve written before about the previously dominant postmodern cultural modes are yielding to a new cultural attitude that based in “our grandparents” generation, one that seeks authenticity, purpose, and meaning.
Advertisers and the commercial semioticians they employ, are of course among the first to pick up on this, dissect it, and attempt to exploit it. Here is a commercial for AT&T that is currently running:
We are shown three vignettes. As we’ll see, the purpose of the commercial is to show how the AT&T network helps you to make meaningful or authentic connections. The first depicts the idea of reconnecting with the generation of our grandparents literally. A young American man is shown walking the streets of a European village, approaching an elderly man, and saying, via the real-time translator in his AT&T phone, “Excuse me, my grandfather was born in this village.” This isn’t a question about directions to the ancestral home, or a good place to eat, it’s literally just a declaration: “I’m connected to you.” The elderly man smiles as if to acknowledge this connection, hinting at some recognition of the grandfather in the face of the grandson and welcome him to the village. The connection to the Italian villager reinforces the man’s connection with his grandfather, and with this remote place. The message is that you are part of something merely by virtue of your connection to it. Had this commercial run a decade ago, the man would be using the translator to chat up an beautiful Italian woman. But that is not part of the new narrative. In the new narrative, technology fosters authentic connection. Remember, cool is out, authentic is in.
In the second vignette, we see no people. Instead, we are shown a hectic scene in a warehouse, with automated forklifts and robots bustling about, with virtual connections arcing among them. The robots are connected together, they are communicating, and because of that, they are getting work done. This is another important feature of the post-postmodern narrative – work is divorced from the traditional marxist concept of labor. There is no labor, only automation. The network of machines enables a tremendous about of work getting done, without any people either doing the work or managing them. The network obviates labor and management both.
In the final vignette, we a see a couple on a city street struggling to find a restaurant. Using an augmented reality app where “friends leave you messages in the air” the couple follows the glowing recommendations down the street to their friends’ recommended place. This to is about connection, moreso about the connection of the couple to its friends via the notes they left in the app, rather than the connection between the two members of the couple.
In the first and third vignettes, the connections are local and personal, rather than global and universal. It doesn’t matter whether the village is a popular tourist destination or historically important. What matters is its connection to the one young man. What matters to the couple looking for a restaurant are the recommendations of their friends, not the recommendations of strangers, or some quantitative metric that stands in for some objective measure of quality. The couple is connected to the restaurant through their friends, just like the young traveler is connected to the village via his grandfather.
consider this in the context of Google’s acquisition of Zagat’s and its famous restaurant guides. Presumably Google intends to layer Zagats ratings and recommendations on top of it’s mapping and services. But the AT&T commercial suggests that Zagat’s ratings aren’t what people care about. In Google’s vision, every part of the world is augmented by a mountain of data compiled from myriads of sources far and wide, from strangers in the present and in the past. In AT&T’s vision, the world is sprinkled with the memories of those who are in your memory. The data is meaningful because of who left it and that person’s importance to you, not because of what it says.
AT&T shows us a future where, unlike Verizon’s Droid commercials, technology and the network do not augment us to make us more powerful, or superhuman. AT&T is differentiating itself by promising that it’s network will augment our lives in order to explore and reinforce those connections that we already consider important. This is the new corporate narrative in the age of authenticity: We are immense, interconnected, and everywhere, but we are in the background and only step forward to make your life richer in ways that are important to you.
Absent is the raw technofetishism of AT&T’s competitor Verizon in their Droid ads. What has replaced it is an almost Apple-like aesthetic: technology in the service of the personal.