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It Could Be a Moment that Matters. Instead, it's a mis-meeting.


            The opening scene of the commercial for the new Google Nexus tablet shows a middle school boy with his mom, so we know that he’s not an orphan.  This will become important later.  The story begins when he asks his tablet, “What’s glossophobia?”

    “Fear of pubic speaking” it replies, and the next scenes show the young student reviewing excerpts from “The King’s Speech” and F.D.R.’s famous, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” speech.  Then it cuts to him practicing his speech, followed by a shot of his concluding the talk in front of his class.  They applaud, and he particularly notices the winsome smile aimed at him by an attractive girl in the second row.

            In the final scene before the product I.D. the student inquires of the tablet, “How do I ask a girl out?”

            The depersonalizing message of this frequently-aired TV commercial is especially pernicious because the package is so clever and appealing.  And like all effective lies, it expertly mixes the true and the false.

            When a pre-adolescent is faced with a scary school assignment, it makes good sense for him or her to research the problem.  This boy asks his tablet, “What’s glossophobia?” and learns that his fear has a name, which makes it at least a little less intimidating.  Then he effectively uses the device to do some research, and he accesses results in the form of film clips, which are undoubtedly higher-impact and easier to remember than mere print.

            Another positive message of this commercial is that research and practice produce results.  The speech goes well, and we can guess that he’ll get a good grade.  Even more importantly, his effective communication gets the positive attention of an attractive young woman, and that trumps everything else.

            The unfortunate, sad, and dangerously misleading part of this commercial occurs when he turns to his tablet to learn how to ask her out.  This question should be asked of a parent, a more-experienced friend or classmate, a favorite uncle, or an older sibling.  It's the kind of question that could prompt a rewarding conversation--for both the student and the person he asks.  This is not the kind of question we should be encouraging children to ask their digital device.

            The commercial is insidious because the difference can seem trivial.  Why not go to the source that helped with your other questions?  The answer is, because not even the Google Nexus 7 can respond as a person can.  This young man's question is personal, and it deserves a personal response, a personal contact, a personal conversation.

            The student's question isn’t about definitions, history, or positive role models.  It’s a much more intimate question, one accompanied by personal feelings of vulnerability and potential embarrassment.  It's a questionabout relationship communication.  One big reason we have close friends and family members is so we can talk with them about questions like this.

            The people who wrote, produced, and approved this commercial clearly don’t understand the difference between what’s impersonal and what’s personal.  Why?  Because so many cultural pressures obscure this vital distinction.  “Friend” has come to mean someone you keyboard with, based on identities (yours and the other person’s) that are constructed on visually appealing home pages.  “Contact’ has come to mean texting, Tweeting, or Instagramming.  Intimacies are paraded for fame and money on countless “reality” shows.  Our communication lives are out of balance, pushed in impersonal  directions by powerful forces in not only the media but also business, learning, politics, and religion.

            How do we know that this is a problem?  Because our human bodies tell us so.  Iaian McGilchrist is just one contemporary neuroscientist who has demonstrated that the structure of the human brain gives each of us the capability to respond to and interpret everything around us in two ways:  personally and impersonally.  For several centuries, McGilchrist shows, we’ve been pushed in impersonal directions to the point that our personal capabilities have atrophied.  As a result, our lives are seriously out of balance. 

            McGilchrist’s book is called The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009),‎ and he shows there that this imbalance has affected the development of not only language itself, but also the all of the arts and sciences to the point where we inhabit “an increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world . . .reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left [impersonal] hemisphere” (p. 6).

            The Google Nexus 7 tablet commercial is one small, current part of the problem.  U&ME:  Communicating in Moments that Matter attempts to be one small, current part of the solution.



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