Codebreaking: AT&T tries for authenticity

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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. 

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11 Responses to Codebreaking: AT&T tries for authenticity

  1. Guy Fox 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.

    In the first vignette, I interpreted the old man’s smile as an expression of wonder at the tricked-out whippersnapper tech. The kid’s declaration of his heritage was so peculiar and jarring that the only impetus for a smile seemed to be wonder at the novelty, a “What hath God wrought?!” moment.

    More important than authenticity aspect seems to be security. In the third vignette all the signs are in Chinese characters, and neither of the couple seem able to make heads or tails of them (hence the surprised relief when he says “See? It’s right there!”). The kid in the first vignette is also out of place and alone, but his trusty gadget gets him a friendly smile and maybe even some homemade carbonara. It’s about being at ease wherever they go because the world is rendered familiar. There’s nothing foreign or scary out there any more. You are precisely more powerful and superhuman relative to prior generations or even the pre-ATT-using you.

    The second vignette has nothing to do with the private consumer. It’s appealing to CTOs and such like for corporate contracts. They know exactly what they’re seeing when there are no employees in the warehouse (exactly what their competitors dream about). In order to avoid jarring the private consumers with a techno wasteland, it was probably sandwiched between the more cuddly vignettes deliberately. The CTOs are salivating too hard to be jarred.

    And marxist labour is just like neo-liberal, Keynesian or pastoral labour. It’s just that it’s usually considered a substitutable factor of production in an economy, but marxists make it the reason for an economy in the first place. Some would say that requires an a priori theory of value (and they’d be right), which would then require some metaphysical acrobatics in heights that are dizzying for many. The point you made stands or falls on its own, but the adjective was superfluous and confusing.

  2. fserb says:

    A few minutes after reading this, I stumbled upon Kottke’s latest post on Mark Zuckerberg trying to write code:

    “It took him like two hours to do something that would take one of us who’s an engineer like five minutes,” says Feross. It was like a retired slugger coming back for one last at-bat, for old time’s sake, and finding he’d lost more of his game than he’d reckoned. Still, he got props from Feross & Co. for getting his hands dirty.”

    Cool is out, authentic is in.

  3. John R says:

    Great article PB, thanks.

  4. robotslave says:

    Authenticity has not replaced cool.

    What has happened is that you have moved from one demographic to another. People are generally not very good at recognizing this when it happens to them.

    There is just as much advertising deploying “cool” as there ever was, but it bounces off of you now. You see it, but it doesn’t grab you. When you see ads for beer and deodorant and video games and car movies (without Clint Eastwood in them), ads aimed at that other demographic, the one you used to be part of, they don’t hold your interest long enough for you to start analyzing them. Ergo, cool is dead.

    Authenticity has always been used to sell products to the demographic you are now part of, but it used to be beneath your notice. Who paid any attention to those dumb pickup truck ads? Ha, they were so cloying and overblown! And who the hell ate at Olive Garden, anyway?

    The signifiers of “cool” and “authentic” have changed a little, I suppose; but then, so have the people writing the ad copy.

    • Guy Fox says:

      Interesting. It’s something you’d have to measure, but you might have a point.

    • Fifi says:

      Excellent point robotslave. Vis a vis the whole “kids now want something authentic” as opposed to all that “fake/ironic post-modernism” is that adopting 60s hairiness and folkish music is no less post-modern than adopting 80s electro inspired hairdos and music. I’m sure some people will think that the grunge revival that’s bubbling up is more “authentic” too, particularly older people who were young during the grunge era. It’s always funny when people believe that music made with traditional instruments is more “authentic” than that made using sampling – when the reality is that music that uses sampling is in many ways much more connected with and reflective of the present and, in this way, can be viewed as a more “authentic” expression of contemporary reality.

    • Fifi says:

      “There is just as much advertising deploying “cool” as there ever was, but it bounces off of you now.”

      Not only does it bounce off people as they age and become disconnected from young people as, well, people (and not objects to be used to support a theory), but it starts to look “inauthentic” because it doesn’t conform to what the older viewer believed was “authentic” when they were younger.

  5. hanba says:

    Thanks, Pastabagel, I really enjoyed the article, as well as the previous one about post-postmodernism.

    “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.”

    Thanks for mentioning the concept of labour. In the post-industrial world, there is no work for parts of the working class and the middle class. Where I live this is especially in the millennial generation, for whom industrial type jobs have ‘always’ been in China. I wonder if it’s even possible to sustain the axiom that people get their income from work. Many people have bypassed this concept through sick leaves and welfare. (TLP also wrote about this a few days ago) Quite a large portion of the young millennials work through ‘stimulus’ jobs or unpaid ‘internships’. Here in the Nordic countries, some have even suggested a ‘citizen’s salary’, a minimum payment received from the state regardless of your employment status. I find this thought repulsive and of course de-incentivizing, but at least it’s honest to mention it, as for the Swedish millennials, this is already more or less happening.

    If art is to portray society, I would be interested to see how the new condition of the no-working class is depicted. And here I don’t mean any neo-marxist hammer mosaics, but a true sublimation of the existential conditions of a post-industrial working and middle class without employment.

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