Science Fantasy
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Codebreaking, Semiotics

The third of British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's Laws of Prediction is the most widely quoted one: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. [1] In US communications, Clarke's third law is scrupulously observed in advertisements for beauty products of all sorts, which use science-fantasy imagery — e.g., high-tech products whose packs glow from within, black-box technologies emerging from a void — to bolster brands' "proof points."

[Fourth in an occasional series cross-posted from Semionaut, a blog co-edited by the author.]

Scientists and engineers surely find such romanticist, counter-Enlightenment, non- or even anti-positivistic signifiers for advanced technology laughable — or perhaps outrageous. And yet high-tech products and services from computer, energy, IT, and mobile telephony companies, among others, are also marketed, in the US, with the aid of exactly similar science-fantasy signifiers. Ads for the no-cords Powermat feature glowing black-box technologies perched atop a glowing black-box technology; ads for Sprint's HTC Touch Pro show an energy beam snaking around a smartphone. And now IBM, a brand known for its no-nonsense rationalism, has gone science-fantasy.

In "Data Baby," one of seven endlessly watchable TV spots recently directed for IBM by Mathew Cullen, data (the baby's heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, ECG, temperature) envelops and surrounds a newborn in a neonatal ward, forming a protective shell/blanket/mobile — we might even think of it as bathwater. It's magical — no, wait, it's science! It's the human touch — no, wait, it's hyper-advanced technology! What a compelling fantasy, indeed.

Motion Theory's Angela Zhu, who art-directed the spot, articulated the oxymoron at the heart of science-fantasy when she told FXGuide, "The data had to be very fragile and humane. The difficulty was to find the balance between technology and humanity… The data blanket had to feel like a mother's finger running over a baby's face — the fragile love and protection is hard to recreate with technology. Technology is informational, humanity is emotional." Meanwhile, the ad's visual effects supervisor, John Fragomeni, expressed the same oxymoron from his own discipline's perspective: "It was important to show how the data was interacting with the baby. It couldn't be threatening in any way, it had to be comforting. … The data that came off the baby was meant to be very organic, rather than like a digitized baby. In the early days we had the data much closer to the skin, but when you're working that close, we found we needed to lift it further and further off the skin because it started to feel like a digital tattoo."

Now that Big Blue's marketing has gone the science-fantasy route, humanized science coding no longer feels particularly emergent, in US culture and communications. (So what science coding is emergent? Ironically, perhaps it's what IBM used to be known for: cold, inhuman, unemotional, inorganic, even threatening science/technology coding.) However, it should be noted that there are two codes at work in "Data Baby": the baby (humanized science) and the data (patterns emerging from ultra-complex info-sets). Let's not throw the bathwater out with the baby.

***

[1] This truism may have been borrowed from "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon," a 1942 Leigh Brackett story in which a character says: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, …. Simple science to the learned" — which might, in turn, have taken inspiration from Mark Twain's 1889 time-travel novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Share

MORE POSTS by

Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based semiotic culture and brand analyst. He is editor/publisher of HILOBROW and the Radium Age science fiction imprint HILOBOOKS. In addition, Josh is co-author of several books, including (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) the family activities guides UNBORED, UNBORED GAMES, and the forthcoming UNBORED ADVENTURE. In the ’00s, Josh was an editor and columnist for the BOSTON GLOBE's IDEAS section; in the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT.