Digital Muzak: How they sell us our iPhones


The life force of a digital device, a mobile phone or a handheld tablet, can give the impression of something magical. The glowing screen and pulsing ribbons of light, the élan vital of this little rectangle of plastic and glass is spectral and, for some at least, no less than spellbinding. Out of electrical impulses fired around tiny circuit boards, overlayed with a framework of dense computer code, comes a pixel-precise organism that speaks and listens, sings and plays, and travels with us wherever we go. An organism that we may even love.

The process is so mysterious, so tightly sealed inside tamper-proof casing that it may make us, the custodian, feel rather removed from its internal marrow. We are aware of the finely balanced logic and programmatic syntax that is fizzing away underneath, but exactly how the spark of life occurs, how it invigorates from bytes to bright lights, may seem darkly obscure. Truly, most of us have no idea what lies behind the inner animus of these personal devices.

Marketers of such products try save us from any undue alienation by a remarkably consistent choice in how they package them up for sale: I say, it’s all in the music.

Such music – a new era in the history of elevator muzak – is everywhere. The style is friendly and whimsical. Often it involves a strummed ukulele. It is the sort of soundtrack that would happily coincide with hipster cocktails on bales of hay, chance flirtations on coffee shops, Chinese lanterns floating on starlit evenings, hammock-sleeping beach-bums.

What I’m talking about is the pretty ribbon-bow of a kooky melody that nearly always accompanies the advertising of digital software and hardware products. The idea it is meant to denote is the utter fulfilment of the users: the selfie generation, memory-making, party-going youngsters with no shortage of esprit de corps to keep the glee from drying up.

What are the advertisers are trying to protect us from? Do our electronic companions really require these euphemistic cocoons to soften the edges of their strangeness?

Let me make an admission: I am a half-hearted technophile. A late-adopter. When it comes to iPhone upgrades or Android compatibility, I don’t really care either way. My initial impulse towards the first phase of mobile phones – those early bulbous propositions from the 90s with such antiquities as aerial prongs and actual plastic buttons – was scant.

I saw friends take them up and integrate them into their social lives. I saw their pockets bulging uncomfortably and heard their ringtones pinging embarrassingly. For me the very connectedness was the drawback. Of course, back then it wasn’t called connectedness – the hullabaloo around networks was yet to come – but was instead recommended for the convenience. It was convenient to tell you mother that you were going to be late to dinner, or let your girlfriend know that you’d caught the train and were on your way. The effect, it seemed to me, was prosaic: to own one of these message-tinklers was to bind yourself to the lusterless responsibility of keeping others informed, and to consequently worry about battery life and signal loss lest a message failed to get sent or read. But that was just me, high in my pen-and-ink tower, and never the heart and soul of a party.

Later incarnations in the form of smartphones are, of course, more fantastic and much harder to resist. I now swipe and tap and scroll with the best of them. The slew of extra functions, alongside the invention of social media and the app, so giving rise to the profound reworking of distance and community into a new type of agency, is intriguing even to the most ashen-faced luddite. The fact that videos and photos spool across continents, proliferating conversations between individuals who will never meet in person, is a remarkable innovation. No wonder people are jumping hyperbolic somersaults about the democratisation of media and other such immeasurable outcomes.

What is less auspicious is the isolation of the activity. Digital-doers may inhabit an exhilarating online world, but to achieve it they are probably adopting that now ubiquitous bodily posture – head bent, neck hunched, hand raised, finger or thumb poised – that speaks overwhelmingly of insularity, even a type of surrender to the machine. I read in a recent newspaper article that doctors predict the way we tap and swipe is likely to evolve the very structure of our hands, such is the demand these devices are putting on our bodies. I wonder.

These type of stories imply an unseen, perhaps even malign influence on our imperfect, fleshy lives. I would suggest that the prophets of progress, those who see future technology as the answer to and not the cause of worldly ills, still have some persuading to be getting on with.

For now we have the kooky music. Incontrovertibly optimistic, gently promising us a more humane existence through the acquisition of one of these devices.

Naturally, as in all renditions of advert-land, the consumer experience is idealised. The promise is to make our lives easier and quicker and, paradoxically, more real. Authenticity is our holy grail.

The music is the twenty-first century version of carpe diem: make the most of the here and now, and do it by staying connected and taking photographs. The soundtrack tends the idealisation towards a reassuring pledge: that at the heart of the digital landscape, humanity is still in control. Just as some thinkers are predicting the malevolent possibilities of Artificial Intelligence, such reassurance is all the more imperative. Rather than dwell on the inner complexity of the digital item, or on the odd magnetism of the giddy little screen, we are invited to see the product as progenitor of friendship and happy memories. Humanity is safe. All that is left to worry about is taking selfies, living high, dressing well, choosing happiness, and above all, staying upgraded.


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