Freedom and Fluency (in hand)

note: This post is adapted from a talk that I intended to turn into an article for academic review. Just thought I’d go ahead and post it before the ideas are even older. No citations here for now, will add later.

The Palm Pre is an interface I can speak of primarily as an object represented in use, since I’ve barely used the thing. (In fact, I recently downgraded my phone so that I don’t have email or web in my pocket.)

The Pre is an interface experience situated within some very particular rhetoric by its marketers and fans. As with many other mobile technologies, the creators of the Pre, its operating system and marketing campaigns set out to identify their product with the expansion of individual freedom through autonomy and self-determination.

As an interface, the Pre and its creators faced some very specific challenges in this effort, since Apple had beat them so soundly to the punch. As my colleague Lisa Nakamura points out, Steve Jobs performed a masterful display of agency through interface at the iPhone rollout.

The Pre’s answer to this represents a substantive departure, countering “boom” with “bing.”

My ability to speak about this device at all despite having barely used it is an indicator of how strong a presence interfaces can take as performed objects. While admitting to an incomplete analysis without attending to actual use, I’ll dive in here to describe how I see mobility understood and granted through this object’s representations and rhetorics.

The Pre – which I initially misunderstood as sharing the name of my favorite French poem – was heralded early on as Palm’s return to its former place as King of handheld interface design. In what looks now like a last-ditch effort, Palm brought on developer Jon Rubinstein, a key figure in the design of the original iPod.  The Pre and its new operating system was Rubinstein’s first big contribution to the company; not long after the phone’s announcement, he was named CEO. Expectations were high, and Palm stock prices began to climb upon the Pre’s announcement in early 2009.

Among the standout features of the phone’s design was the operating system feature dubbed Synergy. This timely innovation marries one’s various contact lists and calendars across multiple social media platforms to create a single dashboard to access them all. One technology writer and market strategist described it as “the ability to integrate personal and business information into one cohesive view,” and compliments the Pre for “showing off how mobile is the intersection between business and personal lives.”

This, and the phone’s multitasking capability, is clearly the feature that Palm decided to push in its expensive rollout marketing campaign.

This portable interface promises power through mobility – while the subject, whom the script names “Anima” barely lifts a finger. The mobility promised is one of potential for movement between disparate social spheres, a promise of ease where the flaneurs of earlier modernities experienced only shock.

The problem of experiencing awkward social confluences is itself a sign of economic mobility. The need for smooth flow between social spaces in this case indicates not a changed polis as it did for Baudelaire or Benjamin, but rather an increase in one’s potential for movement – a change not in one’s shared environment but in an one’s prospects for moving through disparate environments. So the campaign needed to emphasize more than mere power through movement – the Pre’s marketers needed to display a sense of mastery over any space, and even a proclivity toward mastering new spaces. To this end, the language of flow, repetition, and rhythm pervade the whole campaign.

It’s not insignificant that the Pre’s function as buffer or lubricant for social mobility is visualized here through other bodies. The dancers “re-arrange themselves” for the main character, symbolizing in small part the actual people in her networks, and in large part the data streamed through her device. Anima’s fluent interface performance seems all the more powerful in contrast to the gargantuan task of choreographing such a huge group of dancers. Thus power is not only granted through the promise of mobility, but through picturing mobility as a relational phenomenon. Like the first violinist of a large orchestra, Anima’s autonomous movements seem all the more expert through contrast with the huge coordination behind her.

By employing a whole military consort in the production of this ad – and it is a group of students from a Beijing martial arts academy – the piece inadvertently also visualizes the ways in which digital mobilities depend on whole other networks of differing mobilities, people required to move in more and less regimented ways to produce the user’s expanded realm. I’m thinking here at least of the manufacturing and infrastructure laborers who support the networked consumer electronics industry – who probably, like the dancers here, differ from Anima in their skin color. But I’m also thinking of the global infrastructure necessary to any movement outside the proximal opportunities into which one is born.

In other words, the rhetoric around the Pre’s interface promises smooth navigation of bumps only possible for an economically mobile person, a person who moves. To desire this interface is to desire not just a solution to a problem, but to perhaps desire a problem that itself carries social and economic status. This was a significant marketing innovation, about as good as one could hope for in the battle with Apple. (And I should add – I totally bought it, I’ve been wanting one of these devices from the get-go.)

Pre’s choices in support of this mission were extremely smart. They knew they had to go all-out to even approach the iPhone in cache and presence. So they went with Modernista, the “high concept” ad agency perhaps known to most of you through their work on the Product Red campaign. The firm’s first smart choice in this direction was to hire director Tarsem Singh for the video spot. Tarsem has deep experience in shooting artful television ads, and like Michel Gondry and Neil Blomkamp, established an audience for later feature films through the creation of a unique commercial aesthetic. His two films, The Cell and The Fall, both feature female leads with uncanny psychic abilities; if you’ve seen them, the character of Anima will seem more familiar to you.

Tarsem specializes in the construction of non-places, dream-spaces that seem out of time or space, especially those that are rooted in individual subjective fantasy. Through costuming and art direction, these spaces often depend on the same sort of quasi-orientalist state-lessness conjured in the Palm ad. It’s the latest in a long line of travel fantasies for Western subjects. Especially interesting about this manifestation, however, is the decision on the part of Palm and Modernista to release a significant amount of behind-the-scenes footage from the commercial shoot. The ad company’s Youtube stream carries several short documentaries about location shooting in China, and Modernista ad workers even posted images from their travels on the company’s blog.

The result of all this is a second layer of experience for the brand’s true fans. Those who are sold on the Pre’s pitch as a sign of, and tool for, social mobility and control, can take a tour of Palm’s process, where the non-place of “Anima’s World” is replaced with the non-place of the self-contained tourist. Actress Tamara Hope is barely glimpsed in these quick, actively cropped scenes, escorted to the world of the shoot by a group of men close at hand. Since we barely even glimpse her face, we know she is safe in her own world, smoothly transferred across alien cityscapes.

These short films invite fans like myself, seduced by the Pre’s promise of smooth, self-contained management through interface use, to imagine a world of creative mobility, traveling wherever art demands. And of course these scenes of safe mobility are produced through contrast with the less mobile locals, ox-driving or bicycle-riding Chinese who travel at slower speeds to create the illusion of speed for the globetrotting creatives. The picture we get of life in China, of happy children carrying on an ancient tradition, of farmers on dirt roads, is a far cry from the picture we might get from visiting the Pre’s spaces of production, south in Taiwan.

The website for Chi Mei industries describes its work environment in terms of mobile citizenship, rather than in terms of timeless national identity, and so would probably be a poor contrast for Palm’s purposes anyway. Though depictions of the less mobile will work as contrasting material for the mobile elite, better to deal with the seemingly immobile, so as to make the mobile appear to be moving all the faster. We are also spared the reminder of the labor conditions that make such movement possible.

As you may know, reception of the “Flow” campaign was mixed, and you probably know by now that the Pre could not save Palm. The company was recently purchased by HP, with some analysts suggesting that there was really no value left in the company anyway. Market shares this year put Palm way behind in the smartphone market. But still, shortly after the ad rollout, we see results like these, in which the campaign seems to have succeeded in creating interest and desire.

The ads, and the device, certainly created attention in the consumer electronics community, where the character of “Anima” was quickly dubbed “creepy girl,” inspiring a meme-storm of parodies.

“The Palm Pre girl is the first human we’ve seen who is way down in the uncanny valley.” – from the blog Geek Woman Speaks

What are we to make of this mixed reception? The smartphone definitely delivered on its design promises. Fans love the thing, and it’s more likely that a high price and an association with service provider Sprint were to blame for the its lack of commercial success. Modernista executive creative director Gary Koepke claimed to have been very pleased with the campaign’s reception, stating that “…we knew it would be polarizing people to have a woman not shout at them and tell an interesting story.” We might look at the polarized reception of the campaign through the lens of advertising critics such as crazy George Parker, who’s been proclaiming a consumer revolt against high-concept ad campaigns.

But it might also be worth considering this split through a lens of relational mobilities. To my eyes, Modernista tried to correct or adjust the campaign through a couple of late ads in which Anima never turns her back to us, and always maintains eye contact. Their testing must have determined that Anima was not occupied enough with us as viewers. Why might this be a problem? Television viewers have been comfortable watching women operate technology from a distance for decades.

Perhaps, in this case, our status as onlookers made us feel creepy, given the degree to which Anima seemed immersed in a world of her own social control. Anima’s role in the ads is something of a stationary flaneuse, a spatial mover who lets her fingers do the walking. The creeped-out audience may have also been dismayed by the control she commanded, especially as a woman at the helm – thus this blogger’s comparison of Anima to Star Trek’s Borg Queen.

So for chumps like me, caught up in the sublime order of commanding super-human complexity with ease and fluency, the Pre’s promise of mobility offered a route to pursue, an object to purchase and a network to traverse. For those not caught up in the hype, perhaps this seemed like an impossible route to follow. Or perhaps, like those alienated by abstract art, Anima’s haters would prefer not to be made so aware of the structures of command.

As in the avant-garde’s traditional relationship to “low” or popular culture, the relationship between Anima’s fans and detractors is dynamic. They set each other apart and create energy, propelling one another forward in different directions. In this regard, Modernista’s campaign was a success on multiple levels. Fans like myself could vicariously identify with users and perhaps identify as mobile through “getting” a high-concept and difficult campaign. The Pre’s true users could move to identify with a condition of easy social mobility, marked by the need for integration of disparate worlds, but also perhaps by the relational distance of identifying with the avant garde or the creepy, the uncanny. It’s not insignificant that Modernista also designed an opening animation for the phone upon initial startup by a new customer. Here, the new user sees Anima’s landscape from her perspective, and moves into the seat of control.

Thus I would argue that the Pre campaign functions much as modern art has for the last hundred years, establishing possibilities for social and economic mobility in relation to lesser mobilities, through the creation of disparate classes of users and non-users, fans and detractors. And where the center of the old avant-garde was the picture, the 2-dimensional plane, the center of this one is the interface, or what some designers refer to as a 5-dimensional experience.

I’ll conclude here with one other Anima-hater video from Youtube, but one which I offer as a teaser for my other work on representations of interface:

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