The Human Face of Technology: A Critical Reflection

The Human Face of Technology: A Critical Reflection September 9, 2013

A recent series of iPhone ads aims to portray a very human side of that product’s technological features.  Not surprisingly, these ads cast technology in a rosy light, which challenges my often critical perspective toward a cultural infatuation with the latest gadgets.

I say “challenges” because these ads both reflect and perpetuate a certain cultural vibe, and because in my opinion they make a better case in its favor than most advertising I’ve seen.  For these reasons, I consider the narrative they present to be worthy of serious critical engagement.

By engaging their narrative, I do not intend to help them sell their product, which is a potential side effect at odds with my purpose of examining it with a critical eye, but this is a risk worth taking in order to encourage more critical observation of advertising in general.

By critiquing their narrative, I do not expect them to present anything other than a positive view of the product they are selling, and I cannot presume to hold them to standards that contradict that purpose.  But because we know that this is the purpose of commercial advertisements, that gives us all the more reason, as observers (which ideally we ought to be, rather than passive viewers), to question what a commercial is telling us – or not telling us – in order to sell a given product.

Having said all that, here, for the sake of reference (and, to be honest, a certain degree of artistic appreciation, as I will explain below), is the most recent of these ads, on “FaceTime”, which particularly has me thinking.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ujsq1nZAheQ

I actually find this pretty brilliantly presented as far as ads go.  In the span of one minute, we see a stunning variety of people, with brief glimpses into their imaginary lives that are endearing and relatable, all against a simple yet catchy piano melody that adds just the right touch of poignancy without being sappy.  We easily find ourselves liking the guy on the steps who looks around furtively before blowing a kiss towards his phone, the Chinese girls crowding in for a glimpse of the person their friend is shyly greeting, the woman using sign language, the designer in his office receiving a birthday greeting from a group of friends, the pregnant woman showing the shape of her rounded belly, the whole parade of people whose contexts and back stories we can only guess (or they could be ours).

It’s not a far step from there to think, consciously or not, how much significance is in these simple interactions – and then (still in the rosy glow of the previous thought), how remarkable it is that we can communicate in this way across physical distance through devices like smartphones.  And we wouldn’t be entirely wrong.  But like much of advertising, this tells only half the story, because like many things, the remarkable devices have a shadow side.

The following short film by Charlene deGuzman (which millions of people have perhaps watched, ironically, on their iPhones) paints a markedly different picture from the above, demonstrating how the same tool is as capable of getting in the way of those poignant moments as it is of creating them.

Comedian Louis CK makes the same point more bluntly in the first minute of this video (with a few vulgarities).

So there you have it: the mixed blessing.  Technology at once connects us and puts us at a distance.  Even the positive portrayal in the commercial, if you think about it, underscores this point: technology is not an intrinsic good, but rather is good only insofar as it facilitates, and does not inhibit, authentically human communication.

To complicate matters further, it often ends up doing both at the same time.  I think of a friend of mine whose daughter lives in Japan with her young family.  My friend is grateful for the ability to communicate with them frequently via Skype, but she is somewhat ambivalent about the fact that her little granddaughter “thinks Grandma lives in the computer.”

For a more public example, earlier this summer NPR host Scott Simon tweeted from his mother’s deathbed as he accompanied her through her final hours.  After seeing the news story, I was, and still am, of two minds about it.  It makes a difference, of course, that he had his mother’s permission to publicize the experience, and he is a skilled enough writer to pull it off with class as not everyone could.  On one level at least, he did many of us – and evidently himself – a service that many writers have offered before, by articulating a defining experience in a way that resonates broadly.  Still, I wondered if it would have been better to be fully, unpluggedly present to his dying mother in those moments and share a public reflection afterward.  His introspection on how long it had been since he’d held his mother’s hand is touching and insightful, but to picture him holding her hand with one hand and thumbing his mobile device with the other kind of ruins it.  In fairness to Simon, though, the feed (reproduced in the news story linked here) does often show an hour or more between tweets, so perhaps he knew his limits and drew the line wisely after all.

This is obviously not a total luddite’s plea to shun technology, and I would just as obviously be a hypocrite not to admit to having embraced certain aspects of it myself, even if a beat behind most of my peers (in case anyone was wondering, I’m stubbornly sticking to what I proudly call my “stupidphone”).  This is, however, a reminder to approach these technologies critically (do we even have a direct antonym to “luddite” – a quasi-pejorative word for someone who embraces all new technology uncritically?).  Unless we really go to an all-or-nothing extreme, it’s always a question of where we choose to draw the line.  And wherever we draw those lines, we do well to be discerning about what helps and what hinders human connections.

When our gadgets help us to maintain connections with people we know and love, well and good.  But sometimes you just need to put down the iPhone and be with the people you’re with.

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