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The screen and the real world

July 23, 2013 ・ Blog

This isn’t some defence of Apple, much less a defence of some typically crass marketing message. But it is a defence, of sorts, of technology.

There’s an article doing the rounds at the moment called In 20 Years, We’re All Going To Realize This Apple Ad Is Nuts which criticises the tone of a new iOS ad, reasonably suggesting that the ad’s focus on products over people is a misrepresentation of what’s important about design. That’s all fine, but the article also includes a list of the ad’s various images of people being immersed in their iOS devices:

  • A woman closes her eyes on the subway to soak in electronic music.
  • A room of students looks down at their desks instead of at their teacher.
  • A parent and child cuddle, focused on a screen that’s so powerful it illuminates the kid’s face.
  • A couple kisses in the rain, then immediately turn away to look at a phone.
  • A tourist opts to FaceTime instead of bathing in visceral, smoky yakitori.

You know the observation that’s coming, and it’s an emotionally powerful one:

People are constantly directing their attention away from one another and the real, panoramic world to soak in pixels. They’re choosing the experience of their products over the experience of other people several times in quick succession. And Apple has a warm voice in the background, goading us on.

It’s easy to be swept along by this sentiment. Seeing people filming important life events rather than allowing themselves to be swept along by the moment is kinda depressing. The Facebook Home ads were all kinds of awful, presenting continual attention on the news feed as an aspiration.

Fact is, we’re all still learning how best to incorporate connected social technology into our lives, but we have to acknowledge it’s already there nonetheless. As such, it is the real world, not something that’s somehow separate.

The image of the woman listening to music: is the subway a “real, panoramic world” that you lose something in tuning out of? Is music really worse than the roar of train carriages and pre-canned announcements?

If the parent and child were presented looking together at a book rather than an iPad, would we think differently? I suspect so, but I don’t think we should.

And I recall I spent most of my time at school staring down at textbooks rather than at my teacher. In fact, during most talks, don’t we generally watch the presentation rather than speaker? And isn’t that the way it should be?

There’s an easy temptation to disregard the outwardly inscrutable nature of digital interactions as being lesser than the ‘real world’. The clear declaration of reading a book, its spine advertising its specific title and subject, seems more acceptable than reading a Kindle or - worse - a multi-use tablet, on which you can’t even easily tell what kind of medium it’s displaying. But what does the ability to identify have to do with the implicit value of a thing?

This isn’t to say that digital technology shouldn’t try to be more legible, and a more naturalised part of the wider world. Today’s flat screens of pixels are sure to be at least partly supplanted by alternative ways of making information interactive. Course, it’s a shame that one of the most famous current alternatives, Google Glass, seems to fall directly into similar pits of techno-social horror that Apple’s ad has, but there are plenty of other ways, using flexible screens, 3D motion capture like that of Kinect and Leap Motion (launched yesterday!) - even things like Little Printer.

But even before this stuff arrives, it’s a mistake to think digital technologies aren’t yet part of the real world, or that today’s smartphones and tablets are somehow separate from culture in general. They’re here, they’re meaningful and, speaking very broadly, they’re incredibly enriching. Let’s keep criticising their place in culture and society, but let’s do it smartly and with a sense of their value.