Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Tale of Two Commercials: "1984" vs. "Agent Smith" (5 May 2013)

            Super Bowl Sunday, 22 January 1984, saw the one-time airing of one of the most elegant pieces of cinematic art of which I am aware: Ridley Scott's TV ad for the Apple Macintosh, "1984."

            Into a gray, Orwellian, almost entirely male world runs a woman in color, including red shorts. Into a world of robotized/roboticized people and Stalinist-Modern semi-high-tech, she brings a hammer. And into a very literally Orwellian view-screen out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, she throws that hammer.

            Right on, lady!

            To combine a couple ads for the Macintosh, and add one widely held prejudice, the athlete in red helps introduce "for the rest of us" a computer — never named — that will free us from, say, IBM products, "So 1984 won't be like … 1984."

            As anyone who knows me and/or my writing knows, I really despise advertising and urge all and sundry to turn away from commercials, and warn that every time ads get even a microsecond of our attention, that much the hucksters have won. Still, Ridley Scott's "1984" ad is freaking brilliant.
            It is also, looking back — and allowing for a whole lot of contradictions and ironies and hypocrisies — a cultural marker of some significance.

            Fast-forward thirty years, then back up a bit.

            April 2013 saw wide-spread airing of what Lewis Murphy of a couple respectable ListServs describes as "the latest in a sequence of SF themed commercials from GE," that's General Electric, each featuring "various famous robots (or A.I.), including the Lost In Space robot and Data from Star Trek: TNG" — that's The Next Generation, the one with Patrick Stewart. "There is another [commercial] featuring KITT from Knight Rider."

            The recent commercial appears to be titled "Agent of Good" on the GE home page as of 4 May 2013 and is listed as "GE Commercial — Agent of Good: Connected Hospitals" in its most popular YouTube incarnations. I just went with "Agent of Good" in my wiki on "The Human Machine Interface" and described it like this:

Agent Smith from the Matrix series […] pushes General Electric hospital products. Significant for recycling a major virtual/cybernetic villain into a spokesbeing who is believed by the GE advertising people appropriate to offer lollipops to a boy as Neo is offered the red pill or the blue pill by Morpheus in the initial MATRIX film: a scene of potential child seduction older viewers might find highly creepy. Smith, opening lines: "I have found software that intrigues me; it appears it is an agent of good," connecting GE hardware and software allowing virtual multiple-presence and connecting patients via data (sic) to "software, to nurses to the right people and machines." Images feature multiple Smiths (as in the later MATRIX movies) roaming a hospital, where we also see impressive contemporary medical machinery, with visible, but not stressed, GE logos. This technology, Smith tells us, is "Helping hospitals treat people even better, while dramatically reducing waiting time. Now a waiting room" — nearly empty waiting room shown — "is just a room." Title card: "BRILLIANT MACHINES ARE TRANSFORMING THE WAY WE WORK."

             I commented to Lewis Murphy and the others on the Science Fiction Research Association List, that General Electric's SF commercials make sense as an advertising campaign aimed at middle-age/middle-management folk who order Hospital-size medical devices and at the secondary target of old-fogey doctors and patients who are uncomfortable about technological take-over.

            The commercials' message, which I'll her format suitably for relatively subtle, subliminal screen titles: Machines Are Our Friends (like Robbie and Data and KITT); Even The Really Scary Threats Are Our Friends Now, or at least not too scary anymore (maybe like the comic Nazis on Hogan's Heroes).

            Some politically trivial geeks and academics aside, few people think much about commercials. Among those in the target audiences who know and remember Agent Smith, the warm and fuzzy nostalgia of the Matrix memories will mostly overpower any worries about the technologies that Agent Smith quietly endorses and powerfully symbolizes.

            In its way, the Agent Smith commercial is as technically brilliant as Ridley Scott's "1984 (For the Rest of Us)" pushing Mac v. IBM. That Agent Smith/GE is the hero of this latest one indicates important changes, a couple of which are good.

            Scott and the folk at AppleCorp had a large supply of gonads, gall, and chutzpah to appropriate George Orwell's dystopic vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four — and more gall to directly rip off the telescreen in Michael Radner's 1984 film Nineteen Eighty-Four (either that or Radner ripped off Scott or both followed Orwell very carefully — or there was one hell of a coincidence). Still, allowing for all those contradiction, ironies, and hypocrisies, AppleCorp and Scott were on the side of the angels in 1984 in pitting user-friendly, decentralized, and relatively democratic — in 1984 — little Macintosh against IBM-style computers and the IBM business model.

            Today we know that web-based, "iTech," Little Brother technology is a major threat, but there is still much to be said in favot of attacks on Big Brother, and that is what we see in Scott's "1984"; however hypocritically, Scott's female little-David-Macintosh symbol smashes the telescreen of IBM-ish Big Brother.

            The "Agent Smith" commercial supports GE — the Corporate Person and human people who gave us the politicized Ronald Reagan — and big-machine technology. The recent commercial "normalizes" technology that is omnipresent and invasive and eases us over our fears.

            Medical software can indeed be "an agent of good": in a sense a "recuperated," rehabilitated Agent Smith. Big GE medical machines can also be good — and rationalizing and making more efficient the connections among the machines, software, and humans is mostly a good thing.


            We should still fear Agent Smith and all he stands for and remain very, very cautious in dealing with the medTech wonders from GE and other huge corporate entities.

            Big Brother still needs the occasional hammer-throw hammer thrown into his telepresent face. Agent Smith will never be unambiguously "an agent of good," someone to trust offering candy or life-determining decisions to children.

            We may be fogetting such lessons, and the Agent Smith commercial may be a sign of that dangerous amnesia.


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