Let’s dance… into the dystopian surveillance stateby@edhannan
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Let’s dance… into the dystopian surveillance state

by Ed HannanMarch 14th, 2018
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<em>I will elaborate on this subject in an essay I’m currently working on. But for now I feel compelled by the unanimous praise for this Jonze/FKA Twigs project to scream out:</em><strong><em> ‘what the hell is the matter with everyone?!’</em></strong>

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The most ‘clever’ thing about this short film is how the message enters the anesthetised minds of unsuspecting millennials.

I will elaborate on this subject in an essay I’m currently working on. But for now I feel compelled by the unanimous praise for this Jonze/FKA Twigs project to scream out: ‘what the hell is the matter with everyone?!’

As you will know by now, Spike Jonze has directed a four-minute ad for Apple’s HomePod smart speaker that stars musician and dancer FKA Twigs. There is so much wrong with this video that in this short rant it is difficult to fit everything in, but I’ll attempt a brief summary.

By taking advantage of consumers’ preferred use of their home assistant to stream music, Apple has tapped into the joy we all know of losing ourselves to the rhythm of a song.

The Verge said: “I can’t stop playing Apple’s clever new HomePod ad”

Adweek: “Spike Jonze and FKA twigs Made a Jaw-Dropping Short Film for Apple’s HomePod”

Nerdist: “Spike Jonze’s New Apple Ad Is an Amazing Music Video”

creativity-online: “FKA Twigs Dances Her Way Out of Depression in Spike Jonze’s Film for Apple HomePod”

Are we to believe that dancing around your apartment is all that’s needed to confront the debilitating condition of depression? Jonze encapsulates in 4 minutes all that’s wrong with today’s Western culture. Demoralised by her contemporary urban lifestyle, lacking an ability to select music for herself, the defeated young woman asks what will eventually become a standard AI home surveillance system to choose which music she should dance her cares away to — in a short-lived, and realistically anticlimactic, state of blissful ignorance.

Is “Apple’s clever new HomePod ad” really that clever? Or is it vapid?

It’s important to contrast this ad with Ridley Scott’s now-legendary ‘1984’ Apple commercial. Arguably, the emptiness of this new ad represents the marked decline in relative creative innovation in both Apple and popular culture in general spanning the decades since that 1-minute piece aired during the 1984 Super Bowl. The glaring irony is that the 1984 ad introduced a new product to the world by literally showing the smashing of authoritarian power, to represent a rejecting of conformity; the 2018 ad introduces a new product while surreptitiously portraying consumer capitulation to the surveillance state. When assessing Jonze’s video in this light, the regressive reality today becomes quite startling.

Jonze’s master-stroke (on behalf of not only Apple but also Amazon and Google) is in mesmerising his audience with an illusion, while the message of normalising the practice of surveillance goes unnoticed.

There is only one thing that is truly clever about the ad and that is how the message makes its way into the anesthetised and indoctrinated minds of unsuspecting millennials. This film is a harbinger of a new dystopian reality which we will have to learn to navigate.

I so far cannot find anyone analysing the piece critically. All I’ve found is relentless gushing over how amazing it apparently is. Can people not readily identify that the video’s aim is to normalise the authoritarian practices of Western surveillance states? Has everyone really forgotten what Edward Snowden revealed about NSA surveillance?

Apart from the fact that this really is not that ground-breaking— creatively speaking, for years designers have experimented with interesting ways of extending objects into kaleidoscopic lines and patterns — we must look beyond the setting to the more serious issues.

Firstly, if you watch the disturbingly nonchalant Alexa Prize Finals video, you will learn how researchers are working on advancing conversational AI so that we will be more comfortable having conversations with machines in the near future:

Amazon announces the 2018 teams selected to compete for the Alexa Prize, a $3.5 million university challenge to advance human-computer interaction. These teams will create socialbots that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on a range of current events and popular topics such as entertainment, sports, politics, technology, and fashion.”

You must consider with this, the recent research from Baidu in voice cloning from samples. In the future, the Spike Jonze version of an AI operating system in his 2013 film ‘Her’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) will indeed become a reality. Moreover, our AI assistant could potentially be voiced by any public figure, actress or actor we choose — by way of the fact that their voice has been recorded so often.

Next, keeping this in mind, let’s examine where this technology is going.

Prior to Apple’s new release, there have already been patent applications by Amazon and Google — whose links to the US intelligence community are well documented — for new technology that will greatly expand surveillance and data-sharing of consumers’ information through the smart-speaker market.

This Consumer Watchdog report from December 2017 revealed the extent to which the technological capabilities of digital assistants and smart home devices will inevitably increase. Among the many details in the patent applications are:

“A system for deriving sentiments and behaviors from ambient speech, even when a user has not addressed the device”

“Multiple systems for identifying speakers in a conversation and building interest profiles for each one.”

“Google may share data from smart home devices with third parties,including businesses, who can then use the data to make inferences about users’ sleeping, cooking, entertainment, and showering schedules

“… voice fingerprinting to identify the presence of children and motion sensors to detect activity, and reports inferred mischief when children are both active and quiet.

Smart speaker systems in a passive listening state will capture and analyse all speech that will happen nearby. They will be able to identify those speaking and build a profile on them that goes beyond marketing data collection, as noted here: “documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA has developed technology not just to record and transcribe private conversations but to automatically identify the speakers.” And the makers of these devices are connected directly to the government: think of for example Jeff Bezos having a government cloud-computing contract.

This month Apple made their smart-speaker a highly desirable object. Or should I say, Spike Jonze and FKA Twigs have achieved this? Even a cynic like myself has in previous years had much admiration for both of these artists, particularly Jonze in the late 90s. After seeing this latest creative venture, my advice would be to never purchase a smart speaker and always be suspicious of creative types that sell-out to the big corporations.

More to follow…

Ed Hannan is an independent Media and Culture Analyst, Photographer, Designer, Musicologist who can be found here & here.

Ed Hannan (@ed_hannan) | Twitter_The latest Tweets from Ed Hannan (@ed_hannan). Media and Culture Analyst, Photographer, Designer, Musicologist…