Monday 5 June 2017

Picture Post #25 The Machine Age

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

1950s advertising image for a new-fangled vending machine

You can just imagine the conversation...  ‘Hi Betty, can I ask you a dumb question? Better than anyone I know Bill!’

Okay, maybe that's not what the image brought to your mind, but it is what the  copywriters for the original magazine adverstisement came up with - under a heading ‘Sweet ’n’ Snarky’. Don’t ask what ‘snarky’ means exactly, as no one seems to agree, but here the image gives a particular sense to the term: ‘smart, stylish, a little bit rogueish’.

Nearly 70 years on, the machine no longer looks snarky, indeed it looks pretty unstylish and dumb. The green fascia and the plain helvetica font shouting out in red the word ‘COFFEE’ scarcely impress, as surely at the time they would have done. That’s not even to start on the drab characters in this little play, Bill, the office flirt and Betty, the attractive secretary.

In those days, the set-up might have seemed attractive; offering new technological developments combined with social engagement. Just like the characters in a popular TV soap series, the image created by others seeks to tell you who you are. Advertising media in particular have long been keen to exploit this role-play and their success offers a fascinating additional question. Which is; just why do people like to be reduced to their function, to a stereotype?
Of course, the advertisers were not really interested in what an actual Bill might have to talk about to an actual Betty. Real characters are multifaceted. Why, this Bill and Betty might even have both been academics chatting during a break between lectures!
‘Hi Betty, do you think these coffee machines will increase our happiness in life?’
‘Hmmm. Good question, Bill. And my answer would be ‘Yes and No’.  Soon we’ll find ourselves oppressed with new technologies but first let us celebrate the reflection of change this one represents.’
Welcome to the deep world of everyday expression, not the frothy one of advertisers’ expresso.


Keith said...

Ah, the inexorable obsolescence of technology — from the latest ‘shiny bauble’ to the humbly quaint and clunky. (Witness pinball machines, fax machines, the microwave oven, last year’s generation of ‘smart phone’, personal drones — all at different stages of the consumer lifecycle.) But, hey, that’s never slowed us from dipping into our wallets for the latest, can’t-do-without gadget — something we never even knew we needed until marketers planted seeds of unquenchable craving into our susceptible brains. In the process, dexterously creating and undoing and creating again people’s habits and behaviours around gizmos. (Hmm; a side note: What does such malleability say about free will? Oh, well, a discussion for another day, perhaps.)

My goodness, we seem so unnervingly easily seduced — to the enrichment of Madison Avenue sages, who are paid to seek out and probe our vulnerable spots. All the while the kids roll their eyes, until it’s their turn to get drawn into the consumer vortex. As just one case in point, I’m reminded of the VCR — which, along with its shelves of tapes, would give this coffee machine a run for its money for unwieldiness. Let’s not forget, by the way, that the machine shown here was little more than a way to trickily gussy up sad ‘instant coffee’ — not the upmarket coffees and espressos of today, whose success is itself the product of third-party marketing. It remains a world, however, where getting the sweet spot between function (utility) and form (aesthetics) juuuuust right still matters.

On a different note, this coffee machine predates when radically new technologies started to be reproachfully referred to as ‘disruptive’ — prior, most recently, to the ubiquity and mind-bending promise of AI and the latter’s speed of entry into the economy, changing whole industries, the world of work, economies’ dependence on ‘big data’, analytics, predictive modeling. And much more, well into the future — all the way from that then-leading edge and swank, but now-unpretentious and mildly amusing, coffee machine cinematically on display here (keeping the equally objectified man and woman apart? or conjoining them?).

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It does seem to be a strangely posed photo. A reminder to me, this post, of the faddish nature of our technology, and then what benefit did it bring, or in many cases looking back, ruin.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Keith and Thomas,

Myself, I remember how exciting vending machines seemed in the 70s. The father of one of my friends at primary school became very rich selling the machines and had a mysterious van with a logo and the mysterious words: 'vending machines' on it.

But now, as Tess and I looked at the image, all the glamour has turned to dust! There's a philosophical lesson there, surely.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Just wondering whether we are able to 'grasp' that lesson.Thinking back (in history), I feel less anxious, how could we grasp this recent change?

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