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February 02, 2011


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Thanks Will. As Wittgenstein would have said, whereof we wish to tweet, thereof we should be silent.
The stupefying banality of the iPad ad is indeed surprising - it's a fair reflection of the quality of the tweets one comes across even if one is not on Twitter (and I'm not, nor shall be). Surely a better ad would have been one including tweets of just enough cleverness, wit and usefulness to imply that people with iPads can enjoy a better class of social networking chitchat. On the other hand, as John A Hall observed in Powers and Liberties (1985), advanced industrialism depends on cultural egalitarianism to help sustain capitalism in the face of vast economic and political inequalities. So the impression the iPad needs to convey is one of anti-elitism and banality alongside its upmarket looks and price. If this is the strategy, they're right on the money.

Tom Chatfield

I love the phrase "carnival of banality" - a wonderful description on many levels.

But as a regular participant in a similar carnival, the stream of chat surrounding games, I'd beware of leaping from an advert's banality to a reading of this as "honesty regarding the networked age."

Most of what gets communicated between most people most of the time is banal. More or less by definition, in fact, since the exceptional and the original can hardly be a norm.

When it comes to the content of actual networked communications - rather than the inoffensive stuff it's necessary to put in an advert - it seems to me we're seeing more an amplification of existing tendencies, in all directions, than a new order of idiocy.

What we are being forced to see, writ large and constantly and with no possibility of our ignoring it, is just how much human communication is of itself little more than unedifying noise; and at the same time, how parts of that communication can be wildly inventive, expressive, witty, offensive - everything that we've always been able to do. Only more so. In more directions. More of the time, on written record.


I don't envy the copywriter who had the impossible task of coming up with the 3-4 tweets that are somehow meant to express the experience of using Twitter to an undifferentiated audience. They couldn't have done much worse though.

@IanC The quality of tweets one comes across reflects the wit and likemindedness of the people you follow.

Will Davies

Thanks, Tom. I don't think I'm guilty of confusing advertising for reality. Nor am I suggesting in any vuglar culture studies fashion that advertising somehow determines reality, or usage.

But how a product is advertised is part of the promise that it feels able to make. It could offer a great deal more - I know enough about twitter to know that it can do a great deal more than communicate the fact that "i've just eaten the best sandwich. Ever." Yet I think it is nevertheless interesting that this is how abundant communicative capacity ends up being sold.

I guess another way of putting this is that certain structural properties of the technology in question make it the first product in history that advertising ends up under-selling. Exaggerations and fantasies are either undesirable or unhelpful when marketing this product. The result is that advertising hoardings, which are typically communicate extreme beauty and surreal levels of performance, end up displaying humanity in all its boring-ness. Which is in some ways to be welcomed, but must also be considered a marketing failure.

Dick Pountain

"Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization dominates
modern society the world over, even where the more advanced forms of commodity consumption
have seemingly multiplied the variety of roles and objects to choose from."

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

Luis Enrique
Capitalism depends on frustrated yearning to persist, as both Marx and Keynes recognised. Its gravest danger is that people get enough of something, or even too much. Enough leads to a demand short-fall; too much, and you have a crisis of over-production.

well maybe, maybe not. In an admittedly very simple model, if you suppose the marginal utility of consumption hits zero at a certain level (people get sated) labour supply also falls (why would you work if you don't want to buy stuff?) and everything is fine and dandy, markets clear, returns on capital are maintained. OK, throw in various complications and you can argue that a sudden negative shock (what if we woke up tomorrow and people suddenly no longer wanted to buy things!!???) could have nasty adjustment effects, but really there's no particular reason to think that capitalism would collapse should people decide they have enough stuff.

It would do in a model in which people still want income of X, so want to keep working, keep saving and investing, yet only want to purchase x, but that's not internally consistent.


See also the "content" that appears in Apple iPad adverts. Juliette Lewis and the Licks. Wolf Hall. Mediocrity in a can. I find Jobs' vision really stultifying and unattractive.

Luis Enrique

jesus, I'm half way through Wolf Hall and was enjoying it. Now I feel like a mediocrity.

yes, why don't all these companies selling mass consumption goods use content that you like Alex?


Very interesting, Will, as usual. But don't you think that this advertisement strategy is exactly trying to channel the expression of the kinds of banal remarks that one can make in hundred and something characters into that specific media? Facebook has managed to establish a platform for consecrating common episodes of public affirmation of personal choices like 'officializing' a relationship and/or coming out as homosexual. By creating a space where most interaction happens, social action is reshaped. Likewise, Tweeter seems to be, more than creating the banal, a way of harnessing it, subsuming it to the logic of the medium. I mean, think about how, depending on the person we are with, we may or may not make a comment like "What a lovely day!". And if we do, how we can be either a spontaneous sharing of a genuine feeling or a clumsy assembly of words uttered to fill in a silence or to trigger an engagement. Or how we may be able to say out of the blue, "I am reading this fantastic book..." which will probably open a space for a long soliloquy,; or we may ask "Did you see The King's Speech?" which will more likely save us from describing the plot.
There is a learning process involved in these choices even if they become automatic. If one is sharing banal comments all the time, expressing feelings of satisfaction with simple things, one probably feels at ease with the interlocutor, or at least is more trained in the art of chatting or blabbering. Well, because these technologies have to disseminate in a flash, these people in the advertising industry need to train us very quickly in something that takes years of experience. They are telling us to open our hearts and share our simplest feelings with an invisible audience. To blabber to the dark. They are saying that it is OK to share your thoughts with the world even if no one asked you any question. That’s what Tweeter is as a product for the masses.
There are no political uprisings or catastrophes everyday. But everyday people eat sandwiches. And instead of releasing a comment, in the hope of starting a conversation with the waiter or with the stranger standing next to you, you will rather clean your hands, open the cover of your ipad and type: "Now this is what I call a sandwich!"
When we think about the profitable uses of the technology, then we can see this as a big assembly of immaterial labour. A huge shopfloor that assembles craftsmen of free-time sociality and organises it in profitable ways. There is no time to waste in assembling the people because otherwise someone else will do it. But capital seems to have much more time to wait for returns. And if it possesses the products of previous factories of the same type, it has an enormous informational advantage and is in a position to expand to new territories.

Luis Enrique

why should we want to live in a world when we only have "what we need" when what we need is defined by basic necessities of life? (drinking, cleaning and farming)

I don't need but I enjoy middle brow [1] novels like Wolf Hall. I'd prefer a form of economic organization that provides them. We don't need twitter, but millions of people evidently find something the like in it. What's wrong with that?

Did we have enough ways to communicate before the telegraph, or the telephone, or email? What makes you think drawing the line here has a basis in anything other than your prejudices? You wait until they invent electronic telepathy.

It's not hard to work out advertisers try to be as inoffensive as possible - basic lowest common denominator stuff. Apple could show how you can use twitter on your iPad to have angry arguments about historical materialism, but why try to sell something by showing how you can use it to be a twat?

[1] although calling Wolf Hall middle brow is like somebody from the top 1% of the income distribution saying £100,000 a year is middle income

Will Davies

Luis - I think you're extrapolating much too much from my blog post. I didn't say that we "should want to live in a world when we only have "what we need"". Nor did I say there was anything wrong with people using twitter.

My argument is focused on the strange ploys involved in marketing the basic possibility of communication, as a product. And as the scarcity of communication is removed, so the significance and urgency of 'average' or 'normal' communication falls. I am fully aware that people use twitter for all sorts of things. Nor do I have any desire to censor or criticise any (or much) of it. I simply think it's interesting that the ideal as depicted in advertising has, curiously enough, become more banal than the reality. This is the opposite of what usually happens in marketing, but tells us something about the product in question.

Luis Enrique

"extrapolating much"

you are of course correct - I was reacting to what I thought was a tone implying that all this wanting unnecessary stuff was the nefarious work of capitalism, as opposed to simply things people like.

mind you, there's an extrapolating-too-much kettle to match my pot around here.

It's not an ideal being portrayed - I'd imagine the ad agency was looking for examples where as many people as possible would think "I could do that" - if they did anything too non-banal, chances are they'd alienate more people than they attract. Of course the ad agency may have misjudged things and have gone too banal, and too many people may be looking at those adds thinking, who write witless crap like that?

What does this tell us about the product in question? I'm not sure what you have in mind .. that the iPad is banal? Are laptops or mobile phones banal? Is the internet banal?

Dick Pountain

> that the iPad is banal? Are laptops or mobile
> phones banal? Is the internet banal?

Clearly not, they are all communication channels and it's only the content they convey that can be banal. My guess is that the ad agency chose such stupifyingly banal content because there's still a large portion (a majority?) of the population who feel intimidated by technology, and this says to them "look, it's for dummies just like you too".


This issue has been paining me for some time (there is a new Blackberry ad out which is just as depressing – sample communication ‘Having sushi for lunch. Can’t wait!'). I can see that the ad-makers don’t want to alienate their market (‘Reading Don Quixote in the original. Just mindblowing!’) but the most striking thing about the current examples is that they don’t reflect any genuine communication – they’re just brief windows onto the tedious, solipsistic world of the (imaginary) person in question.

Surely it would make more sense to use examples which imply at least a thriving friendship group (say, ‘You’ll never guess what I just heard!’, ‘Anyone fancy a little adventure?’, ‘Just got free tickets to the match this weekend! Any takers?’). This would be just as generally applicable, but at least give the impression that buying the gadget in question would open up a new world of social delight, which is surely the main selling point.

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