Monday, June 11, 2012

Selling memory and conversation: Three thoughts on Apple/Siri's latest ads

You may have seen one of these iPhone/Siri ads from this NPR article: Hey Celebs, Are You Lonesome Tonight? Siri's Gotcha  There are three aspects to the program that struck me as I read the article and watched the included ads.

First: Siri embodies the clueless alien with massive mental firepower-literally a computer for a brain-as seemingly all-knowing but lacks understanding of basic pop/cultural syntax or semantics.
My best example of this is traveling recently with my two teenage cousins sitting in the back seat of the car firing questions at the Siri program. Ridiculous questions that they would very quickly become tired of asking an adult or peer because the answers to their questions would actually be answers. Instead interaction with Siri offers either straightforwardly sincere (admitting that Siri doesn't get humor minus the occasional flash of programmed wit) or, in response to a particularly obscure or ludicrous question the phrase "I don't understand".  In this context Siri becomes a parlor game, a novelty. A harmless interactive-only version of the Turing Test where the questions being asked are designed to stump for purposes of amusement of the listeners. "Can you stump the machine?" This is the context of every friendly alien movie where the amusement comes from the watching the outsider trying to fit themselves into the daily activity/routine with which the rest of the culture is comfortable. At least it's amusing to 13 and 14 year olds.

Second: The fact you have to hit the button every time seems like an intercom system to a disembodied intelligence waiting to interact with you. The sense is not of a whimsical, helpful tool but rather the sadness of a deeply, limited conversation and the need to ask questions for almost every single thing. The NPR article suggests that "The overt message of these TV ads is obvious: By the command of your voice, Siri can help you with the mundane tasks of everyday life." Is this the true American dream-to have our questions/whims answered by simply speaking them, without labor or effort? Or is it deeper that there is something/some entity to always respond to our questions so that we never feel alone? (See this brief history of the ELIZA talk bot, built as a sort of simulation of Rogerian psychotherapy.)

Thirdly: What's especially interesting about each one of these commercials is the absence of memory. Jackson can't remember how many ounces are in a cup, Deschanel asks to be reminded to clean up her house and Malkovitch wants to know what is in store for his evening. Siri is really only helpful if the user is willing to stop remembering or at the very least cede the role of memory from the user's brain to the iPhone's memory chip. What struck me as well is the sense conveyed that not knowing or not remembering is incredibly "cool", which the use of Jackson/Deschanel and Malkovich as characters, convey.

(Not to be that old dude shaking his cane at the youngsters on the lawn but this kind of thing that draws parallels to Socrates' story of the loss of memory due to memory. Anne Blair's book Too Much to Know, which I don't have in front of me, also shares a similar story from the Muslim tradition. In both stories there is legitimate fear that writing will eliminate the need to remember. While writing has allowed for the more efficient preservation of knowledge there is something to be said for the act of remembering that, for the ancient world, writing supplanted. There's a distinct difference between purposefully recording a future event and trusting the act of recall to a tool. The paper doesn't read itself.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Sticking with it" versus "becoming unstuck": an exercise in metaphor

Yesterday I was reading the Cambridge book review of The Pale King and this quote, toward the end of the review stuck with me: "...based on the evidence of this novel, I’d take Pietsch’s more hopeful view, that Wallace was trying to come unstuck and believed it was worth his while to try to do so and thought of his writing as a way of understanding how to do it." (Emphasis mine)
This is a great review and worth reading but what stayed with my brain was the idea of "being stuck" versus the idea of "sticking with".
If you're not familiar with David Foster Wallace, the aformentioned mention to Wallace's being stuck references Wallace's struggle with depression. Knowing this background helps to clarify what the reviewer perceived Wallace as being stuck in. One of the best examples of being stuck, at least what leaps to mind is the story of  Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit manages to stick himself so fast into the Tar Baby that his enemy, Brer Fox, comes as close as he ever will to actually eating the rabbit.  Being stuck in or on something (i.e. being stranded) is typically negative. Referring back to the quote at the top of this post suggests that becoming unstuck can be read as synonymous with escape or release. For example the phrases "stuck in traffic", "stuck (or caught) between a rock and a hard place" and, with reluctance, Linkin Park's By Myself references being "stuck on the outside" or, with more enthusiasm, The Hold Steady's "stuck between stations", convey a negative or less than desirable state. In describing the creative process there is reference to being stuck at a particular point in the process (writer's block) connecting to the metaphor of the creative process as flow in which flowing freely is a positive attribute but to be stuck is to suggest the pausing or stoppage of the creative flow. ("stuck in a rut"). The negative connotation of "being stuck" connects to the metaphorical understanding of forward is good, backwards is bad. (See Lakoff/Johnson Metaphors We Live By) Moving forward is synonymous with the idea of progress and to be stuck negates progress and/or forward movement; the loss of freedom. Being stuck as a negative idea also references the related metaphor of "life as a journey". If one is stuck, one cannot journey or progress, (Brer Rabbit cannot escape) or  therefore being stuck, in many situations, is seen as negative.

On the other hand the phrase "sticking with it" is positive. "Sticking with it" implies perseverance through a difficult situation and even if that particular situation didn't end successfully the act of "sticking with it" can be added as a sort of back-handed encouragement ("We lost the game but at least we stuck it out to the end.")  Successful gymnast dismounts are often commentated as "sticking the landing" or having "stuck the landing" implying the successful setting of feet back onto the gymn floor w/o wavering or falling over. ("Sticking the landing" may have some relationship to the gymnast's ability to control their body not only through the, typically, continuous, movements on the particular apparatus but also to stop completely so that by ceasing all movement they demonstrate the end of their routine and control of their selves.)   The phrase "sticking it out" also can refer to perseverance through a difficult situations through a particularly grueling process and succeeding, or at least making it, to the end. ("It was a tough climb, but I stuck it out for the view(s) from the top.") To "stick it out" implies a sense in which the thing (it) in which one is participating or undertaking is less than the sum of the whole. That is the "it" is relatively small to the overall benefit of sticking it out. I think this also has a connection to the metaphor of "life as a journey" as the ability to successfully "stick it out"  or "sticking with it" implies that it is a temporary, or at least non-permanent, state. One can stick it out or stick with it because one can see the end. (On the flipside, failing to "stick it out" during a difficult situation or a situation in which others can see the end(ing) is typically seen as failing or a direct result of giving up.)
The ability to "stick it out" carries with it the sense that the "it" is finite; at the very least one can see the end of whatever one is sticking. Because the outcomes of many of life's events are not foreknown, sticking it out also carries with it hope that the end result is different than the currently expected or experienced state of being.
I think the difference in understanding "sticking it out" versus being "stuck" is one of proximity or perspective. Note that "sticking it out" or "sticking with it" are related to whatever it is as companion or as platform. Personal effort is being made to maintain close distance/proximity to the thing that is causing difficulty. One is pursuing or must at least keep pace with that thing to which one is trying to master or beat. To become unstuck from something implies that the "it" has somehow overtaken you or that you are, or have become, subservient to the situation. Brer Rabbit is unable to free himself from the Tar Baby or if one's creative flow is blocked; reading any author's memoir or instructions on how to write often includes steps explaining how to remove that block or to realize the creative flow.
However both metaphors of "becoming unstuck" or "sticking with it" depend on the concept of life as a journey. Both depend upon the idea of progress as positive to derive their meanings.
(I'm not sure if there's a larger concept to draw upon here. I thought there was in the time I've spent thinking about it but that concept has come in and out of focus and currently it's pretty far out of focus so I'm going to leave this here. If I'm able to derive something further, I'll post it.)