There’s something unsettling about that new Microsoft commercial. You know, the one with Common on stage apparently rapping rhapsodic about his love for computers and artificial intelligence. It has the aura of a TED talk monologue, part gushing ode, part “Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the AI.” It isn’t an ad for a specific product, more an ad for an idea of technology itself. It’s technology propaganda of a long familiar sort if you’ve ever run into something like Wired magazine, of how technology is empowering creative minds and learning. But there is something here with Common that really embraces AI rebooted within other familiar cultural packaging as some kind of cyborgian human potential movement meets technochurch. There is a religious aura about it, one peculiarly hatched from a Silicon Valley boardroom. It’s an exemplary demonstration of what John F. Noble articulated as the religious themes undergirding our beliefs about technology. Check it out:
But the ad rings dissonant against the world at this historical moment when people’s anxieties are piqued by the implosion of Facebook, the data mining skulduggery of Cambridge Analytica and other unknown agencies, NSA spying, CIA contracts with Amazon for cloud space, and automatic cars running over people in Arizona. Common’s sense is against the wind amid a world increasingly weary of the dehumanizing, the alienating, identity theft, fake news and agitprop, the proliferation of disinformation, confusion, online trolling and bots bolstering phony citizens groups. It’s at this curious moment that Microsoft launches an ad campaign to promote what else but faith in the information technological revolution. And how they do it!
The Greek hero Prometheus was tortured by the gods for eternity after disobeying Zeus and bringing fire to humanity from Mount Olympus. Chained to the Carpathian mountains, liver exposed to the vultures to eternally peck at, Prometheus might cry from his chains to humanity. Thank you for your sacrifice, Prometheus, god of technology! There is a gift of innovation, but also hidden debt paid for in the sacrifice. A sacrifice that is repaid through our dutiful adulation. As historical poetry would have it, Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, Washington rests not far from Washington’s Mount Olympus.
So here we are with our cyberworship with Pastor Common, which smacks of a kind of religious service propitiating the technological gods of Silicon Valley for their miracles. Oh how they’ve suffered for us. The familiar tropes are all there, “you have more power at your fingertips than entire generations that came before you.” Oh how long our ancestors have suffered over the centuries without WIFI! Whatever did they do with themselves? What’s more – aren’t you grateful for the silicon gifts? Always remember, Alan Turing died for our sins! Hallelujah for the Turing Machine! Amen for the iPhone we are saved!
And at the moment of suspicion and doubt, when our confidence in technology has ebbed, Common is there to lift our spirits. And what a vessel for this Microsoft sermon! To borrow from Spike Lee, he’s kind of cast here within the white gaze, within the Hollywood trope of the so-called “magical negro.” He’s the Bagger Vance telling us how to find our swing with big technics once again. Dell’s slew of commercials are doing something similar casting the great Jeffrey Wright. Wright himself has been curiously typecast like a Stephen King character mixed with a computer nerd in The Hunger Games movies and HBO’s Westworld. Wright is basically playing the later’s Bernard in these commercials which highlight how Dell is literally changing the way we all see reality itself – even cure blindness – how’s that for Jesus-lives magic? Gimme that old time religion!
The salvation that technology is promising humanity here associates itself with the guilt of good white people. Common and Wright, not unlike Barack Obama from within the epistemic claptrap of the white gaze, are like the Christs of technology propaganda – nerdy while having the knack for being able to be black without drawing attention to their blackness, for to do so would draw good white people’s attention to their own discomfiting color and its attendant guilt. Ta-Nehisi Coates calls this the “Al Roker” phenomenon, where the Roker persona is helpful, reassuring. Underneath the ostensible content of their speech, their color alone whispers preconscious assurances of acceptance, the forgiveness of racial sin that like Epsom-salt soothes the guilt-rattled bones of white folk. Perhaps technological guilt can be soothed too and we can let go all those generations who didn’t live to see the Jetsons-like wonderland they dreamt of.
The longer version of the Common commercial adds in another dimension of the message where takes care to mention that technology is just a tool, in a bid to reassure the technophobic. “What’s a hammer without a person who swings it?” It’s the Heideggarian move — technology should be a tool only, it should not turn about on us and be dehumanizing. Is that what’s happening though today? Common pulls on this but it’s duplicitous. He ends with an imperative disguised as a humanistic question, “what will you do with it?” But it isn’t a liberating phrase, for underneath the gift there is always the secret debt. We have to use these machines ’cause … well ’cause all those coders worked so hard … so “be grateful” for your cybertopia!
But is there a product that reassures the human of the integrity of their own human being in an information — and disinformation — drenched society? Where is the software that deepens reality or connection? How does one disentangle themselves from the morass of profiling and data mining? Where is the app that saves the souls of internet trolls? How does one extract one’s self from this technological propaganda with the skepticism it deserves? Where is the promise of the free and open internet rather than the unregulated corporate cyber monopolies where mega-corporations like Facebook are not serving customers, but generate their wealth by vampirically turning consumers into capital? Where is the app for reality, wisdom, empathy? And most importantly, where the button that turns the whole damn thing off?
See my essay on Westworld: “Frankenstein’d Gunslingers from Frontierland: “Westworld and the Robojihad of the Near Future.”