The new Apple ad, and what has been missing from most depictions of the digital future
Some further thoughts on the social role of consumer technologies
Today I want to revisit a post from back in February. It was just after the Super Bowl, and it mostly focused on why I actually kind of liked Meta’s Animatronic Dog ad. ButI also wrote a long passage discussing the social role of tech, and how this fits into tech commercials. Apple just released a new commercial, and I want to talk about it in that context.
(This is going to be one of those rare Dave-actually-sounds-earnest-and-hopeful blog posts. I’m going completely off-brand here, I know.)
Take a look at the commercial below. It’s from 2010, for the iPhone 4. The iPhone 4 added a second, front-facing (selfie) camera. The second camera was the big innovation they had to introduce and make relevant to peoples’ lives.
What this ad does incredibly well is communicate the social role of the new iPhone. It answers the question, “What is the extra camera for? How does it fit into my life?” It lets the person you’re talking to see you, and see what you see. Why should you buy this new expensive gadget, when (if you’re in the target audience) you probably already bought a similar expensive gadget in the past couple years? Because you can see how it would fit into your life and make the rough edges of your daily routines noticeably smoother.
(Let me pause to note here that when I describe this as a good ad, I mean “good” solely in the narrow sense that the advertisement is effective at explaining the product. There are plenty of good advertisements for socially corrosive technologies. One could make a “good” ad for facial recognition technology, even though facial recognition technology is goddamn evil.)
Many of the early iPhone ads were a masterclass at demonstrating the social role of their new consumer products. One of the first ads, “Calamari,” showed how the integration of maps, web search, iPod video, and a phone would work. When Apple debuted App Store with the iPhone 3G, it ran a series of “there’s an app for that” commercials, explaining how apps like Shazam add myriad uses to the smartphone.
Compare those early ads to this 2020 iPhone X ad. The iPhone X debuted the unlock-with-facial-recognition feature.
This ad is a mess. I mean, sure, it’s clever. But what is this new unlocking feature for? Uh… Well you can unlock the screen with your face. What social role is it meant to play in your life? Uh… I guess now your hands will be free. It’s annoying having to type in your passcode, right?
Part of what has changed is that consumer technology has kind of plateaued over the past decade or so. The graphics and cameras and processors keep getting fancier to justify new models and high prices. There have been advances in virtual assistants and machine learning. But the only meaningful difference between the iPhone 13 and the iPhone 12 is it can help you shoot professional-quality movies. The vast majority of iPhone consumers are not professional filmmakers.
Now take a look at the Larry David/Crypto Super Bowl ad.
On one level, this is a very fun ad. It’s Larry David doing Larry David things. It’s designed for viral sharing. It earned a bunch of free media as a standout Super Bowl ad. But as a consumer technology ad, it’s just a complete nothingburger.
What is FTX/cryptocurrency for? Well, y’see, it’s the next big thing. Don’t miss out!
What is the social role it is meant to play in your life? We told you. It’s the next big thing. Don’t miss out!
Okay, but really. What is it FOR? Shut up, hater. It’s the next big thing! Have fun staying poor, you #NoCoiner.
The reason people like me are convinced crypto is effectively just a ponzi is that, 13+ years after it was invented, the only social role of crypto is as a vehicle for speculative investments.
All the crypto advertisements at the Super Bowl this year felt deeply reminiscent of the dot-com ads in the 2000 Super Bowl. 2000 was the height of the dot-com bubble. Companies had huge valuations, no real revenues, and no actual business model. They were propping themselves up through a race for public attention, promising to figure out the business model someday, later, but in the meantime don’t miss out on this goldrush. E*Trade had a dancing monkey. Pets.com had a sock puppet. EDS.com had a bunch of guys on horseback, herding cats. It was all glitz, no substance. None of those dotcom ads could explain the social role that their products were meant to have in consumers’ lives. The dotcom crash looks obvious in retrospect.
If you weren’t into crypto before the Larry David ad, then you still aren’t going to be into crypto after the Larry David ad. The only thing it has communicated is that the people making money off of crypto have a lot of money to throw around. Crypto still seems sketchy as hell, because no one can explain what it’s for or how it is supposed to make money.
What a difference a year makes, right?
That FTX ad is now the subject of a lawsuit. Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX turned out to be an era-defining ponzi. It is bankrupt and might drag the entire crypto ecosystem down along with it.
It also seems a little eerie just how much 2022 has ended up resembling 2000 for the tech industry. 2022 is going to be remembered as the year the tech lash ended and the tech crash began.
But the reason I’m thinking back to this essay today is that Apple just came out with their best advertisement in probably a decade. Here, watch for yourself:
What impresses me about this ad is that the company is getting back to its focus on how technologies can fit into our lives. They aren’t asking us to imagine the metaverse, or invest in crypto. The company is showing how its products integrate into the daily routines of real people. And that’s one of the major things that I think has been missing from so much of the discourse on the digital future: building consumer tech that is centered on fitting into the lives of actual people.
It’s worth noting that there isn’t a new product here. I just finished reading Tripp Mickle’s book, After Steve: How Apple became a trillion-dollar company and lost its soul. The book is a good reminder that, in the decade post-Steve Jobs, Apple’s only major new product has been the Apple Watch. They’ve sold plenty of watches, but it’s still little more than a health-tracking accessory.
We’ve had a decade of surprising stability in the tech sector. The Internet of 2022 is an awful lot like the Internet of 2012. And, as we look ahead to 2023 and beyond, the exciting/scary thing is the general sense that this stability is about to end. It’s not just Twitter. It’s not just Netflix. It’s not just Facebook. The entirety of “big tech” is facing a financial reckoning. The next five years seem like they’ll somehow be different than the past five years.
2021 was noteworthy as a year when much of Silicon Valley got pumped about starting the next chapter of the digital revolution. They mostly fixated on Web3 and the Metaverse, two visions of the future that increasingly look like non-starters. They almost entirely ignored the climate crisis, treating it as someone else’s problem.
A lot of people are insisting right now that the tech future will be driven by generative AI. I have a pretty strong suspicion that its impacts will be a lot more constrained once the revenue models come into view. I’m tinkering with a longer piece on that topic that should be ready later this month.
I don’t know what the future will look like. But I think it’s significant that at least one of the tech companies is returning to a vision of consumer technology that centers actual human beings and imagines concrete use-cases that add enough value to our lives to be worth the cost. (It’s also heartening, for once, to see them building for users who aren’t standard-issue-tech-bros. More of this, pleaseandthankyou.)
I don’t need or want a neural implant. I have no interest in space tourism. The metaverse, for the most part, seems boring as hell.
The consumer technologies that we cherish most are the ones that were built to improve the lived experiences of actual human beings as they actually exist today.
It’s nice to see Apple returning to that anchor point. Let’s hope it turns out to be a harbinger of things to come.