Greetings from the Rubbish Patch

The commercial opens with a series of quick, intimate shots. Someone writing a letter by hand; someone shaking a polaroid as its exposure settles; a photographer outside, taking pictures with an old film camera; a writer completing his screenplay, on a typewriter. When the narration begins — with the word “stories” — the camera pulls back for the first time, lingering for a moment on woman at a cafe. She sets her cappuccino down on a worn, wooden table, next to an old, clothbound book. In her hand is her phone. She’s reading Facebook.

You’ve probably forgotten about this advertisement, or, perhaps, never saw it to begin with. It’s been almost a year and a half since Facebook released it to announce their new app, Paper, and probably about a year, four months, and a week since any of the technorati talked about it. It — and the thinkpieces that grappled with it — are far down the river. And yet, the advertisement remains an incisive piece of fiction that, as I watch it, anyway, perfectly sums up the strangeness of our time. If you haven’t seen it, or if it’s been too long, take a couple of minutes to watch it now. But promise me you’ll come back. At least one of you out there reading this worked on this campaign, so you and I can wait here patiently together…

The world of the Paper advertisement is a temporal distortion, albeit quite a beautiful one. It’s curated, just so, to replace the look and touch of technology as we know it with symbols from the past. The letter for the email, the Polaroid for the JPEG, the typewriter for the laptop. Each of these vignettes portrays a creative act we know, yet are far more likely to do digitally, happening in a world we know, yet is far more likely to be filled with synthetics and throwaways. It’s quite striking, actually. The ubiquitous plastic, cables, screens, and Ikea furniture of our world are nowhere to be seen. Instead, wood, cloth, and of course, paper. It’s like a grocery store doing an ad that only shows the produce section — no wrappers or boxes anywhere. This is an elaborate 21st century wizard’s curtain; behind it is just another app for your phone.

We’ve seen this before.

Recently, I was trying to explain to a friend what irked me about the film, Her. There were many things, but one of them was exactly what I find so false about Facebook’s Paper ad: They sell the “future” by selling the past. Her perfectly encapsulates the 21st century tech promo vernacular — the perfect West Elm catalog brought to life, the major-scale piano, ukelele and xylophone music, the rapid cutting from one close up to another, the Instagram filter, the constant tugging on our heartstrings — but is the two-hour version, depicting a not-too-distant future which looks like a cosmic mashup of Minority Report and All the President’s Men. It’s one part “future,” three parts past. That sort of recipe’s secret ingredient is nostalgia, of course, but in this case, for a past we really never knew! After all, everyone in the Facebook ad is too young to have experienced whatever pre-1980 era in which it seems Paper’s screenwriter lives (more on that in a moment). Our parents’ generation is completely unrepresented, and when they see it, they’ll tell us the sixties and seventies never really looked that good.

But the greatest irony is that Paper is selling a dream from which you will wake the moment you start using it. All of those beautiful analog moments portray things Facebook wants you to do in Paper. And for crying out loud, there is no paper in Paper. The name is a blatant mind trick. But is it a trick that works?

“Everyone knows that advertisers try to create unreal associations between products and lifestyles. Beer commercials show beer-drinkers living dynamic lives, so the implication is that consuming a certain type of beer will make your life more exciting. There is a kind of unreal message there. But this isn’t the same as subliminal advertising. The fact that the commercial’s erroneous relationship can be described and mocked proves that a consumer can recognize and reject the ad’s message.” — Chuck Klosterman, Ethicist

My sense is that the person Facebook has in mind for Paper is the same person who reluctantly maintains her Facebook account, already bored with social media, skeptical of the stacks behind it, and yet compelled to stay out of some sense of obligatory 21st century engagement protocol (“my family is there;” “my clients are there”). Does that sound familiar? She wants a life outside of the app; the app sells her that dream inside the app. I think she’s smart enough to pass. I hope she is.

But back to the future on screen for a moment. It’s well-known lore that Steven Spielberg convened a group of technology experts to contribute to the design of the future that Minority Report would portray. Their research and insights made for a pretty fresh take on the future, equal parts mundane and fantastic, but entirely believable. That was twelve years ago; much of what was new and strange then has since become not-so-new and not-so-strange. The rest of it… well I guess we still have things to look forward to. Spike Jonze, on the other hand, seems to have gone no further than Pinterest for his research. His (or Her) is a world glibly built upon a slight riff on today’s aesthetic, not tomorrow’s technology. It’s a world created to be comfortable to the audience, one into which we could step right now and, as far as I can tell, navigate just fine. Perhaps, in fairness to Jonze, that’s the point: Sure, it’s weird that Theodore falls in love with his operating system, but as is clearly the point, how far away are any of us from emotional dependence upon our technology? Her isn’t really about the future, it’s about the now, and the style makes that clear. But wait! you say, High-waisted pants! Give it a bit more time. Someone will be wearing them.

If it were possible to tune a chronovisor on 2054, I think we’d see plenty of things that, though we recognize them, have changed just enough over time to make us uncomfortable, disgusted, or afraid. Spielberg nailed this juxtaposition over and over again in Minority Report. John Anderton walks into a Gap, but is followed by a digital marketing omnipresence that knows a little too much about him and is too casual with sharing those details aloud. Anderton’s police squad wield batons that are used not to strike, but to induce projectile vomiting, and “halo” — a device placed on the neck which renders the wearer unconscious — their perpetrators rather than just cuff them. The aggression has been turned up a bit across the board. In Spielberg’s 2054, voices in the air, flying cars, jet packs, sick sticks and halos all make up a technological landscape that is both recognizable and repellent, one that draws upon our imagination to explain just how things got that way. Facebook and Jonze put that same logic in reverse. It’s a world filled with antiques and one, preferred contemporary technology as the centerpiece. While that’s kind of weird, it’s just not weird enough to be a believable future. It asks nothing of our imagination, but assumes our need for comfort and instant gratification.

So is the future weird or is it comfortable? Yes. The future is weird, but what’s especially weird is how normal it will be when we’re there. No one knows just how it will look, but I’ll wager that what the crystal ball will show will always be stranger than fiction.

Grouping Her and Paper together may seem unfair. One is a fictional film, the other an advertisement. But both couple the future — Her as a metaphorical device (art), and Paper as a manipulative device (advertising) — with contemporary aesthetics to lower our expectations to be satisfied by less.

Here’s the thing. I like mid-century modern aesthetics just as much as the next guy. I’m sure there’s some cogent analysis out there as to why we of 2014 decorate our homes like Charles and Ray Eames, but as for right now, I don’t know why. And it probably doesn’t matter much to what I’m fussing about with Her and Paper. Maybe we just like the simplicity, the colors, the surfaces. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating beauty in things — no matter when they are from — or even wanting to build an entire world around them. That’s the thing dreams are made of. I would certainly be pretty happy with a future of fewer screens and more corduroy (or whatever hipster fabric du jour). I’ve even fantasized about a desk like Charles Eames would have had — big, heavy, solid wood, on which would be some paper, pens, perhaps one wire for a lamp, and no screen of any kind. But that’s not going to happen. The screens, the particle board furniture, the snarl of wire under our desks, the awkward laptop in bed, the dongles and chargers, the plastic, the GUI, the web, for goodness sake — this is all our world today. If the world of Her has the freedom to fully return to Eamesian simplicity because its computers are omnipresent and conversant, wonderful. But Paper has no such excuse. You’re supposed to have downloaded Paper in 2014.

The world of Paper — and really, many app advertisements — is an illusion. It’s a screenless world created to sell you a thing made for the screen. It’s the past resurrected in order to convince you that something entirely common today is actually a portal to the future. Anyone touching a shiny, bright screen is going to look futuristic when they’re ensconced in a world furnished with stuff from Grandmother’s attic. This is a manipulation. If we want the world of Her, let’s actually go build it. Let’s figure out how to build technology that can be productively used without having to stare at it all the time. We’re doing that, you say. Siri! Google Now! Alexa! Yes, yes. But let’s figure out how to do that in a way that doesn’t continue to hand over our privacy and free will to corporations that clearly still haven’t figured out how to get out of the advertising game. Let’s figure out how to break the attention barrier and return to a sense of technological progress that is measured by how useful things are, not how good they are at catching us in digital traps where we waste our lives clicking things. And let’s not delude ourselves that we’re just an app-install away from a frictionless and clean world of invisible technology. If the number of cables I carry around with me every day is any indicator, we’re far from it. If the business models of most highly valued tech companies are any indicator, we’re very far from it. Oh, and as for how we achieve the clean part, your guess is as good as mine. Facebook and Jonze don’t show you the massive, energy sucking data centers behind the tech in their future worlds — the 40,000 megawatt blocks of nothing but snarls of cable and plastic. But they’re there. Somewhere. They have to be, unless they figured out some other way to store all our selfies and status messages, and some other way to keep the lights on besides burning things.

Have you seen Kim Dong-Kyu’s work? His high-art/high-tech mashups make the point better than words. You probably saw one or two of them on a Tumblr somewhere, unattributed, natch. It’s as if each of Dong-Kyu’s images depicts a timeslip — the room of a 19th century French artist invading the room of a 21st century American consumer.

There’s a messiness to imagining the future that only time can clean up. Looking backward is easy, and can be done with plenty of present-applicable irony, as my favorite piece by Dong-Kyu — His Room — so perfectly depicts. Looking forward, we cobble together our images based upon the most cutting edge fragments we have, and of course, it’s going to be a strange pastiche, perhaps similar to Dong-Kyu’s work after all. Whether we do this for weirdness’s sake is another question — one brought up by Bruce Sterling in his commentary on the new aesthetic. He wrote:

“The New Aesthetic is gooey all over with noosphere sauce. It can’t go where it needs to go, unless it climbs out of that old rubbish patch. Over it, around it, through it, whatever it may take…That’s the big problem, as I see it: the New Aesthetic is trying to hack a modern aesthetic, instead of thinking hard enough and working hard enough to build one. That’s the case so far, anyhow. No reason that the New Aesthetic has to stop where it stands at this moment, after such a promising start. I rather imagine it’s bound to do otherwise. Somebody somewhere will, anyhow.”

The confinement Sterling writes about — that we are looking out from within the “rubbish patch” — aptly describes the Achilles heel of futurism: being very much of the now. It lacks experience of the actual future. Even Spielberg’s deeply researched futurism is still looking out from the rubbish patch. I know this because heroes in 2057 still wear pants from The Gap. By the way, if you want a dose of futurism that is at least trying to have an out-of-the-rubbish-patch experience, you should read Bruce Sterling,Jon Lebkowsky, and Cory Doctorow’s “State of the World.” Their dispatch is essentially an annual attempt at that — the weirder, the better.

Speaking of science fiction authors calling us out from the rubbish patch, William Gibson tweeted this shortly after the Paper ad debuted:

“In the early 21st Century, the hot look for younger white men will be Bearded Methodist Sunday School Teacher.”
— nobody, 1967

Spot on.

Which brings me back to our hero, Paper’s screenwriter, Will Bailey. I know his name because I paused the commercial long enough to catch the cover of his script: “An Original Script, by Will Bailey.”

Check him out, there at 01:21. Is he not exactly whom Gibson is describing? He’s really got this whole look covered — down to even the home furnishings. Beard and thick-rimmed glasses? Check. He’ll raise you one cardigan. But why stop there? Will Bailey uses a typewriter! Who knows why. It certainly can’t be anything but an affectation, because anyone who writes on even a slightly regular basis would sooner choose pen and paper over a typewriter (assuming we’re going to be Amish about our laptops for some reason). Pen and paper makes for easy crossing out and writing between lines. But fixing just one, minor typo on a typewriter is a huge interruption, and can’t even be done that well more than once. Also, whiteout. You’ve got to be kidding me. Here on my laptop, I’ve corrected 5 or 6 typos inline without even really noticing it. I don’t care how of-the-now that makes me look, I will never use a typewriter. But Will Bailey does. Fine, good for him. But there he is at 01:21 seriously contemplating his phone. This is a very particular sort of luddite. Actually, one could make a study of his entire desk, but I can’t get past the tape dispenser and stapler without having to imagine something science-fictional like that Will is actually from the late 1960s and is dumbfounded by this future artifact that has suddenly appeared in his hand. That’s a much more believable scenario than just taking this image at face value as far as I’m concerned.

So why pick on Will Bailey? I’m sure he’s a nice guy. My problem with this character is that he represents a sentiment that does exist in the world right now — particularly among the upper-middle-class digerati of Western culture — of fashionable luddism. It’s this peculiar rejection of certain forms of technology at certain times based upon a pretty subjective (and continually evolving) sense of what is most “authentic.” It’s what might make Will Bailey use a typewriter, not a laptop, for his writing, but still engage digitally on his phone. For all I know, Will Bailey is listening to Spotify on his phone while he types on his typewriter! I worry for Will Bailey’s hearing. He’d need to turn up the volume quite high to drown out the incredibly loud CLACK CLACK CLACKING of his typewriter. Oh, and there’s another reason why writers were all too happy to leave the typewriter behind: the CLACK CLACK CLACKING. But this authenticity thing is real. It makes people do weird things that seem contradictory, but may, in fact, be due to some elaborate compartmentalization of thinking and doing.

In fairness to us all, some of our choices are messy and indefensible and that’s perfectly OK. We’re human. Is it OK for Will Bailey to use a typewriter? Sure it is. Is it a bit silly? Yes, of course. But no sillier than my personal library of printed books. Or my delivery subscription to The New Yorker. Or my aversion to all things plastic except where it requires me to not be lazy and bring my own shopping bag to the grocery store. Our lives no doubt offer numerous examples of this sort of thing, where in one case we’re Marty McFly, wearing that shiny hat (yet, sigh, 2015 has come and no shiny hats), while in another we’re pushing backward or holding the line of progress, whatever that means to you and me.

I suppose all these contradictions and idiosyncrasies are just a part of making sense of the passage of time. And, more importantly, of what progress we believe we’ve made. Each of us, individually, draws meaning from that and contributes in some tiny way to the larger metanarrative chronicling our culture’s inexorable march forward. It’s like a whirlwind, mixing things up, shaking things loose, moving across time and space — whether we like it or not. There’s nothing to object to in inexorability. What will be will be. But, when it comes to making sense of our little part, of making all the tiny choices that are gathered up in the swirling cultural cyclone twisting and blowing into the future, it still seems preferable to do so as carefully and intentionally and consistently as we can. Well, each decision in accordance with its importance, of course. I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the right to wear a cardigan and high-waisted pants.

Heavy Name-dropping

I’ve just finalized the program for this year’s HOW Interactive Design Conference in Chicago in October, and good lord, I think you just need to find a way to come out and join us. Why? Two reasons. Reason-number-one: This is a show-and-tell event. No lectures. Only working designers sharing their work and being honest about what worked and what didn’t. As in, no bullshit. We’re calling it “Stories from the Field.” Reason-number-two: The designers. Emily Brick, Product Designer at Buzzfeed. Russell Davies, Director of Strategy at GDS UK. The Almighty Ian Fitzpatrick (see what I did there?). Dan Hon, Editorial Director at Code for America. Evelyn Kim, UX Designer at Uber. David Sherwin, Director of UX at Daniel Newman, Deputy Creative Director at NPR. Matt Kump from Slack. And more. Crazy-talented people, all of whom are going to make me shut down like when Troy Barnes meets his hero, LeVar Burton. (And to be fair, I’d probably act the same way if I met LeVar Burton.) Check out the event. You can get a hefty discount — 25% off! — if you register by Sunday, August 2. You can also use promo code “BUTLER50” to save an additional $50 anytime. That applies to the Chicago event that I’ve programmed, as well as the other two in Boston and San Francisco. They’ll all be great. But come to Chicago so we can hang. I know a place that serves enormous pieces of cake.

Heavy Rotation

Speaking of odd, anachronistic affectations, I made a 100+ song streaming playlist of deep cuts from the nineties that has served as my cooking dinner soundtrack for the last week or so. You’re probably not on Google Play, but you can still see the list.

Heavy Tabbing

“Oil! Our secret god, our secret sharer, our magic wand, fulfiller of our every desire, our co-conspirator, the sine qua non in all we do!” - Margaret Atwood, who rules, writing for Matter. This kid has figured out how to live in first class and pay nothing for it. A pretty rad developer built Borges’s Library of Babel. The Solar System in pixels. Tinkering geeks unite over this Raspberry PI cluster. Advertising is awful, but here’s a new, nerdier reason to loath it. Explaining graphic design to four-year-olds. The data-driven body at work and at play. Barbie goes to art school. A short film about the eighth Ronald McDonald, because you don’t have enough sad clown in your life. Also, he offers advice on healthy eating, for whatever that’s worth (snort). The Theory of Everything.


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Written by Christopher Butler on July 30, 2015,   In Essays

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