Tensions of a Digitally-Connected World in Cricket Wireless’ Holiday Ad Campaign

In the spirit of taking a break over the holidays, this is more of a fun post with some very rough thoughts (though inspired by some of my prior work on paying attention to and critiquing narratives and futures portrayed by tech advertising). The basic version is that the Cricket Wireless 2018 Holiday AdFour the Holidays (made by ad company Psyop), portrays a narrative that makes a slight critique of an always-connected world and suggests that physical face-to-face interaction is a more enjoyable experience for friends than digital sharing. While perhaps a over-simplistic critique of mobile technology use, the twin messages of “buy a wireless phone plan to connect with friends” and “try to disconnect to spend time with friends” highlight important tensions and contradictions present in everyday digital life.

But let’s look at the ad in a little more detail!

Last month, while streaming Canadian curling matches (it’s more fun than you might think, case in point, I’ve blogged about the sport’s own controversy with broom technology) there was a short Cricket ad playing with a holiday jingle. And I’m generally inclined to pay attention to an ad with a good jingle. Looking it up online brought up a 3 minute long short film version expanding upon the 15 second commercial (embedded above), which I’ll describe and analyze below.

It starts with Cricket’s animated characters Ramon (the green blob with hair), Dusty (the orange fuzzy ball), Chip (the blue square), and Rose (the green oblong shape) on a Hollywood set, “filming” the aforementioned commercial, singing their jingle:

The four, the merrier! Cricket keeps us share-ier!

Four lines of unlimited data, for a hundred bucks a month!

After their shoot is over, Dusty wants the group to watch fireworks from the Cricket water tower (which is really the Warner Brothers Studio water tower, though maybe we should call it Chekov’s water tower in this instance) on New Year’s Eve. Alas, the crew has other plans, and everyone flies to their holiday destinations: Ramon to Mexico, Dusty to Canada, Chip to New York, and Rose to Aspen.

The video then shows each character enjoying the holidays in their respective locations with their smartphones. Ramon uses his phone to take pictures of food shared on a family table; Rose uses hers to take selfies on a ski lift.

The first hint that there might be a message critiquing an always-connected world is when the ad shows Dusty in a snowed-in, remote Canadian cabin. Presumably this tells us that he gets a cell signal up there, but in this scene, he is not using his phone. Rather, he’s making cookies with his two (human) nieces (not sure how that works, but I’ll suspend my disbelief), highlighting a face-to-face familial interaction using a traditional holiday group activity.

The second hint that something might not be quite right is the dutch angel establishing shot of New York City in the next scene. The non-horizontal horizon line (which also evokes the off-balance establishing shot of New York from an Avengers: Infinity War trailer) visually puts the scene off balance. But the moment quickly passes, as we see Chip on the streets of New York taking instagram selfies.

2 Dutch angles of New York

Dutch angle of New York from Cricket Wireless’ “Four the Holidays” (left) and Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War (right)

Then comes a rapid montage of photos and smiling selfies that the group is sending and sharing with each other, in a sort of digital self-presentation utopia. But as the short film has been hinting at, this utopia is not reflective of the characters’ lived experience.

The video cuts to Dusty, skating alone on a frozen pond, successfully completing a trick, but then realizes that he has no one to share the moment with. He then sings “The four the merrier, Cricket keeps us share-ier” in a minor key as re-envisions clouds in the sky as the form of the four friends. The minor key and Dusty’s singing show skepticism in the lyrics’ claim that being share-ier is indeed merrier.

The minor key continues, as Ramon sings while envisioning a set of holiday lights as the four friends, and Rose sees a department store window display as the four friends. Chip attends a party where the Cricket commercial (from the start of the video) airs on a TV, but is still lonely. Chip then hails a cab, dramatically stating in a deep voice “Take me home.”

In the last scene, Chip sits atop the Cricket Water Tower (or, Chekov’s Water Tower returns!) at 11:57pm on New Year’s Eve, staring alone at his phone, discontent. This is the clearest signal about the lack of fulfillment he finds from his phone, and by extension, the digitally mediated connection with his friends.

Immediately this is juxtaposed with Ramon singing with his guitar from the other side of the water tower, still in the minor key. Chip hears him and immediately becomes happier, and the music shifts to a major key as Rose and Dusty enter as the tempo picks up, and the drums and orchestra of instruments join in. And the commercial ends with the four of them watching New Year’s fireworks together. It’s worth noting the lyrics at the end:

Ramon: The four the merrier…

Chip [spoken]: Ramon?! You’re here!

Rose: There’s something in the air-ier

All: That helps us connect, all the season through. The four, the merrier

Dusty: One’s a little harrier (So hairy!)

All: The holidays are better, the holidays are better, the holidays are better with your crew.

Nothing here is explicitly about Cricket wireless, or the value of being digitally connected. It’s also worth noting that the phone that Chip was previously staring at is nowhere to be found after he sees Ramon. There is some ambiguous use of the word “connect,” which could refer to both a face-to-face interaction or a digitally mediated one, but the tone of the scene and emotional storyline bringing the four friends physically together seems to suggest that connect refers to the value of face-to-face interaction.

So what might this all mean (beyond the fact that I’ve watched this commercial too many times and have the music stuck in my head)? Perhaps the larger and more important point is that the commercial/short film is emblematic of a series of tensions around connection and disconnection in today’s society. Being digitally connected is seen as a positive that allows for greater opportunity (and greater work output), but at the same time discontent is reflected in culture and media, ranging from articles on tech addiction, to guides on grayscaling iPhones to combat color stimulation, to disconnection camps. There’s also a moralizing force behind these tensions: to be a good employee/student/friend/family member/etc, we are told that we must be digitally connected and always-on, but at the same time, we are told that we must also be dis-connected or interact face-to-face in order to be good subjects.

In many ways, the tensions expressed in this video — an advertisement for a wireless provider trying to encourage customers to sign up for their wireless plans, while presenting a story highlighting the need to digitally disconnect — parallels the tensions that Ellie Harmon and Melissa Mazmanian find in their analysis of media discourse of smartphones: that there is both a push for individuals to integrate the smartphone into everyday life, and to dis-integrate the smartphone from everyday life. What is fascinating to me here is that this video from Cricket exhibits both of those ideas at the same time. As Harmon and Mazmanian write,

The stories that circulate about the smartphone in American culture matter. They matter for how individuals experience the device, the ways that designers envision future technologies, and the ways that researchers frame their questions.

While Four the Holidays doesn’t tell the most complex or nuanced story about connectivity and smartphone use, the narrative that Cricket and Psyop created veers away from a utopian imagining of the world with tech, and instead begins to reflect  some of the inherent tensions and contradictions of smartphone use and mobile connectivity that are experienced as a part of everyday life.

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Glass Enterprise Edition Doesn’t Seem So Creepy

Google Glass has returned — as Glass Enterprise Edition. The company’s website suggests that it can be used in professional settings–such as manufacturing, logistics, and healthcare — for specific work applications, such as accessing training videos, annotated images, handsfree checklists, or sharing your viewpoint with an expert collaborator. This is a very different imagined future with Glass than in the 2012 “One Day” concept video where a dude walks around New York City taking pictures and petting dogs. In fact, the idea of using this type of product in a professional working space, collaborating with experts from your point of view sounds a lot like the original Microsoft HoloLens concept video (mirror).

This is not to say one company followed or copied another (and in fact Hololens’ more augmented-reality-like interface and Glass’ more heads-up-display-like interface will likely be used for different types of applications. It is, however, a great example of how a product’s creepiness is partly related to whether it’s envisioned as a device to be used in constrained contexts or not.  In a great opening line which I think sums this well,  Levi Sumagaysay at Silicon Beat says:

Now Google Glass is productive, not creepy.

As I’ve previously written with Deirdre Mulligan [open access version] about the future worlds imagined by the original video presentations of Glass and HoloLens, Glass’ original portrayal of being always-on (and potentially always recording), invisible to others, taking information from one social context and using it in another, used in public spaces, made it easier to see it as a creepy and privacy-infringing device. (It didn’t help that the first Glass video also only showed the viewpoint of a single imagined user, a 20-something-year-old white man). Its goal seemed to be to capture information about a person’s entire life — from riding the subway to getting coffee with friends, to shopping, to going on dates. And a lot of people reacted negatively to Glass’ initial explorer edition, with Glass bans in some bars and restaurants, campaigns against it, and the rise of the colloquial term “glasshole.” In contrast, HoloLens was depicted as a very visible and very bulky device that can be easily seen, and its use was limited to a few familiar, specific places and contexts — at work or at home, so it’s not portrayed as a device that could record anything at any time. Notably, the HoloLens video also avoided showing the device in public spaces. HoloLens was also presented as a productivity tool to help complete specific tasks in new ways (such as CAD, helping someone complete a task by sharing their point of view, and the ever exciting file sharing), rather than a device that could capture everything about a user’s life. And there were few public displays of concern over privacy. (If you’re interested in more, I have another blog entry with more detail). 

Whether explicit or implicit, the presentation of Glass Enterprise Edition seems to recognize some of the lessons about constraining the use of such an expansive set of capabilities to particular contexts and roles. Using Glass’ sensing, recording, sharing, and display capabilities within the confines of professionals doing manufacturing, healthcare, or other work on the whole helps position the device as something that will not violate people’s privacy in public spaces. (Though it is perhaps still to be seen what types of privacy problems related to Glass will emerge in workplaces, and how those might be addressed through design, use rules, training, an so forth). What is perhaps more broadly interesting is how the same technology can take on different meanings with regards to privacy based on how it’s situated, used, and imagined within particular contexts and assemblages.

Curling Brooms, Policy, and Provocative Design

The curling world has recently been swept into debate over the role of new brooms. Even outlets such as Yahoo Sports and The Washington Post have reported about it. As a relatively new curler (I started a little over a year ago out of the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club), and an early scholar studying people’s perceptions of and social effects of new technologies, this struck me as a particularly interesting debate, even if I’ve been watching this from a bit of a distance.

Curling Photo

Curling – it’s that sport played on ice with the rocks and the brooms! (Photo by Peter Miller, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license.)

A quick primer on curling to the best of my ability (World Curling TV also has a great intro video on the sport’s basics for the uninitiated):

In the game, 1 player delivers a rock by pushing it down the ice. 2 other players sweep with brooms to guide the stone down the sheet of ice towards a particular position at the other end. Rocks curl as they travel, moving in an arced path. Sweeping with brooms reduces friction on the ice and makes the arced path straighter. This allows stones to move further and straighter. While sweepers can adjust the path of the rock to some degree, the path the rock takes is predominantly determined by the person delivering the rock. This person must deliver at the correct initial angle and speed, requiring precision and skill.

Old Curling Brooms

These aren’t the (corn) brooms you’re looking for. Unless you’re living in the 1940s.(Photo by Boston Public Library, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license)

The technologies of brooms have changed over time. We’ve moved from classic corn brooms to brooms with horsehair brushes, to synthetic nylon pads (that visually resemble something more akin to a mop or Swiffer). And these pads have improved over time too, with different companies offering specialized designs. For example, the Goldline Norway pad uses a waterproofing layer under the fabric (wet pads are less effective at sweeping), and has small ridges which reduces sweeping friction and help cleans dirt in the rock’s path. The BalancePlus EQ pad reflects more heat back to the ice and are also waterproofed.

Newer Curling Brooms

You’re more likely to find brooms that look like these today. (Photo by Len Adams, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license)

But about a month ago, in early October 2015, a new type of broom pad caused debate and controversy among many in the curling community. Broom pads made by BalancePlus with “directional fabric,” as it has been dubbed, can direct stones in almost zig-zag-like directions with “magical” precision, rather than the normal arced path. This means the precision and skill needed to deliver or throw the rock diminishes greatly. Instead, sweepers can direct the rock almost anywhere they want it to go. While “directional fabric” heads have been available for some time now by other companies, the BalancePlus version took it to a new level, exaggerating the directional qualities available in other companies’ brooms. At the time, there were no formal rules banning the use of these types of brooms. Nor are there many formal rules on equipment players can use in general. There were calls to ban the brooms, many calling them unfair, or not in the spirit of curling. Many top level players signed a statement saying that they would not use the brooms. And on November 6, the World Curling Federation banned the brooms for the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships. Many people speculate more formal rules may be forthcoming, especially given the lead up to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

But one thing in particular really stands out to me. BalancePlus, the manufacturer of these brooms, itself called for companies to stop using directional fabric, calling them bad for the game, and that they “were crafted in order to prove a point about how far curling technology can go and were never going to get to market.” Taking them at their word, it indicates that the design of these heads were deliberately provocative in order to make a point and generate discussion.

Diving into the world of design, this seems similar to Dunne and Raby’s concept of “critical design,” that design can be pushed beyond reinforcing values of consumer culture but instead be used provocatively for cultural critique. The strategy of pushing existing trends to the extreme is one strategy of critical design, also used by BalancePlus.

However, I wouldn’t go as far as calling these brooms as critical design – while intentionally provocative, they don’t go as far as cultural critique. Instead, I would call what they did something more akin to a provocative design intervention, or design provocation, as they do explicitly try to engage in what they see as a potentially troubling trend in curling technologies.

In that sense, BalancePlus’ creation of these brooms with “directional fabric” was a success in provoking and jumpstarting a conversation.

The resulting conversation raised concerns about not only “directional fabric” but the sport of curling more generally. In particular, three ways people talked about the brooms stand out:

  1. The Future of the Sport. Many people note the traction that the sport has gained in the Winter Olympics, particularly with the addition of a new curling event in 2018, Mixed Doubles. The sports’ popularity has also been growing in the US in recent years. Part of this is done by cultivating an image of skilled athleticism in curling – both in the throwing and sweeping of rocks. The ability to easily control rocks through sweeping with directional fabrics diminishes the amount of athleticism needed for both throwing and sweeping. These concerns endanger curling’s growing reputation among a broader outside audience that may already be quick to question curling’s status as a sport.
  2. Fairness is also appealed to in a couple of ways. On one hand, there is an argument about the fairness of skill development. Elite curlers put in years of work to improve their delivery, and these new brooms threaten to make that type of expertise unnecessary. Second, it is about the fairness of games. A team playing with directional fabric against a team without those types of brooms is at a significant advantage: they can make shots that the other team is physically unable to make. The (somewhat heated) response by Hardline Curling, another manufacturer of curling equipment who was already making brooms with something similar to directional fabric, wrote that their brooms are “fair” because anyone can buy them, and it’s not against the curling rules. That is technically true. Curling rules (http://www.worldcurling.org/rules-and-regulations-downloads) on equipment are quite slim, having less than 2 pages on equipment circa October 2015. The main rule is just that “No player shall cause damage to the ice surface by means of equipment…” (And yes, in curling, we take the quality of the ice surface quite seriously). Some people argue that directional fabrics ruin the ice surface, although that is contested as well. However, when people argue that directional fabrics aren’t “fair,” they’re usually not appealing to a technical definition or official rule in regards to fairness, but are appealing toward a different idea of fairness, which brings us to point three…
  3. The Spirit of Curling. Curling prides itself on being a moral and ethical sport. The rulebook is relatively slim. At the non-elite level games are self-called. There are no referees, and players are expected to call their own penalties. It’s a friendly and close knit community. Fairness in this sense goes beyond the rulebook, rather to the social norms of the game and the social norms of the curling community. And in many ways, these social norms are what draw people to curling.

The conversation resulting from the broom contoversy reveals a pretty neat intertwining of technology (brooms), regulation (curling regulations), and norms (the spirit of curling). This is not a pure technical issue about brooms, but a debate that combines the technical issues of the brooms, current and possible future curling rules and regulations, and the norms among the curling community. Technologies, regulations, and norms are not separate entities, but deeply intertwined. And as seen, changes to one can provoke or push on the others. This similar to Jackson, Gillespie, and Payette’s Policy Knot, which looks at the ways design, policy, and practice are intertwined.

Thus, while the “directional fabric” brooms may seem like a scary thing at first, when we think of it as an intentionally provocative and noncommercial design, it becomes pretty cool and does some good work for us. It has highlighted a potentially troubling developing in broom technology and jumpstarted a conversation about how to mitigate these potential problems before they become widespread. In an age where law and policy are often perceived to be “behind” technology development, more design provocations and conceptual designs can be good for starting these types of conversations early on, and for having nuanced discussions. Law and policy aren’t always the things to be “fixed” or changed (though sometimes they should be). Other times however, we may look at ways to change technologies or social norms as ways to regulate in the face of new developments.

Provocative designs can help us anticipate and speculate the ways in which technologies, policies, norms, and people might interact (and react) in the future. And that’s definitely something we don’t want to just sweep away.