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This paper explores Apple and Microsoft television commercials from the last 25 years and argues that they visualize three phases of the human–computer relationship through the changing positions of the computer and the human body. The three phases are: disembodied cyberspace, embodied hybridity and ubiquity. Ultimately, what becomes apparent is the extent to which these television commercials demonstrate what Henry Jenkins calls a ‘cultural convergence’ in relation to the human–computer relationship and why this convergence experienced a shift from phase one to phase two around the turn of the millennium. The paper ends by examining more recent Apple and Microsoft television commercials in order to explore the possibility of a new, third phase in the human–computer relationship.
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Media History
ISSN: 1368-8804 (Print) 1469-9729 (Online) Journal homepage:
Computer television commercials and three phases of the human–computer
David Gruber
To cite this article: David Gruber (2010) FROM THE SCREEN TO ME, 1984–2008, Media History,
16:3, 341-356, DOI: 10.1080/13688804.2010.483102
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Published online: 14 Jun 2010.
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Computer television commercials and three
phases of the humancomputer relationship
David Gruber
This paper explores Apple and Microsoft television commercials from the last 25 years and argues
that they visualize three phases of the humancomputer relationship through the changing
positions of the computer and the human body. The three phases are: disembodied cyberspace,
embodied hybridity and ubiquity. Ultimately, what becomes apparent is the extent to which these
television commercials demonstrate what Henry Jenkins calls a ‘cultural convergence’ in relation
to the humancomputer relationship and why this convergence experienced a shift from phase
one to phase two around the turn of the millennium. The paper ends by examining more recent
Apple and Microsoft television commercials in order to explore the possibility of a new, third
phase in the humancomputer relationship.
KEYWORDS television; commercials; body; computer; convergence; Apple;
Microsoft; cyberspace
Over the last two decades, a conceptual paradigm shift has occurred with respect to
the humancomputer relationship. This shift describes the movement from (1) an enclosed
cyberspace where one’s mind is imagined as separate from one’s body to (2) an open,
material space outside of the computer where mind and body are imagined as one entity,
existing in unison. The result of this conceptual shift, as will be explored, is a decreasing
emphasis on the computer and an increasing emphasis on the display of the body in the
material environment, a body in action with the computer. The individual is no longer
positioned as under the control of a computer system, or ‘inside’ the computer, no longer
steered by the machine to virtual worlds existing within cyberspace. Subsequently, there is
an implied liberation for the human body.
This shift from what I am calling ‘phase one’ to ‘phase two’ is evidenced in Apple
and Microsoft television commercials from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s as they
progressively re-imagine the physical position of the body and the computer. In the first
commercials, the user’s body is more often than not an implied entity, not pictured on
The body is imagined within cyberspace, and the camera interpellates the
television audience as the cyber traveller. Every television viewer becomes the unseen
body moving through cyberspace. However, by the early 2000s, the computer is out in the
material space of the flesh-and-blood user who is now physically present in the television
commercials. In phase two, commercial narratives are increasingly organized around the
human body. Ultimately, what becomes apparent is the extent to which these television
commercials demonstrate what Henry Jenkins calls a ‘cultural convergence’ (‘Conver-
gence’) in relation to the humancomputer relationship and why this convergence
experienced a shift from phase one to phase two at the turn of the millennium.
With that said, the development of a new, third phase, or another shift, may just
now be beginning, and computer television commercials may help to shape and further
Media History, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2010
ISSN 1368-8804 print/1469-9729 online/10/03034116
#2010 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/13688804.2010.483102
illuminate this next shift. If the television commercials under investigation in this paper
prove to be any indicator, then the concepts of mixed reality,augmented space
and hybrid spaceare quickly becoming outdated remnants of phase two, with the third
phase being the loss of any need to articulate boundaries between virtual space and
material space. Accordingly, an interest in context-aware computingor on the seamless
integration and the invisibility of computers may indicate the beginning of a phase with
a focus on technological transparency and, consequently, a new effort to ignore the
device and exclusively focus on the human body and to naturalize a technologized
Before going further, though, it should be noted that advertisements, as a
particularly pervasive form of cultural production, have previously been invoked as
cultural indicators, or what Joseph Tussman once called Awareness Institutions(20).
According to Schudson, advertisements have helped to shape peoples basic concept
of how the world operates and what kind of lives are worth living(xix). Not
surprisingly, then, scholars have repeatedly used advertisements as ways to study
cultural sensibilities (Marchand; Kellner; Cho et al.). However, computer television
commercials generally, and Apple and Microsoft television commercials more specifi-
cally, have received little treatment in this regard, certainly as they relate to notions of
the humancomputer relationship.
As of yet, the overall historical trajectory of specific
computer television commercials has not been mapped, nor have they been placed in
reference to the computer industry or cultural events occurring at those same times.
By examining these factors, I hope to demonstrate that the rhetorical manoeuvring of
the human and the computer within Apple and Microsoft television commercials
indicates broader cultural sensibilities about the humancomputer relationship, or what
might be called shifts in the cultural convergence.
Phase One: Disembodied Cyberspace
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Apple Corporation and the Microsoft
Corporation produced numerous television commercials inundated with images of the
computer screen. With a few exceptions, these advertisements ignored displays of the
human body. They mostly pictured the computer user inside of the machine and
imagined the user as lostwithin cyberspace and/or entranced by the screen. Some of
the earliest examples of this phenomenon were the television commercials of the mid-
1980s in support of the Apple advertising campaign that revolved around the slogan
the computer for the rest of us. One of the commercials in this campaign began with
the computer case disappearing and with the camera no people in sight flying
right into the computer. The rest of the commercial featured the inside of the
computer, an aesthetically pleasing tour of the machines internal components gold
wires, metallic chips, processors. The television camera hovered above this technolo-
gical landscape, offering the impression of a helicopter ride over what might be
imagined as the majestic, hard-wired canyons of a new frontier, embracing a popular
metaphor for early conceptualizations of cyberculture (Silver 19). This television
commercial can be understood as the introduction to a culture that imagined itself
moving inside the computer, embarking on a journey into a new technological space.
In another television commercial produced in support of that same Apple ad
campaign, a Macintosh computer sat next to a PC. After a moment, several large
instruction manuals fell from the sky and plopped down beside the PC. Next to the
Macintosh, however, one slim manual fell from the sky. No human hands were seen
dropping the manuals.
Although the presence of the manuals suggested that a human
user would be needed to operate the computer, the failure to show any human per-
son underscored the automated capabilities of the computer and how easy it would be to
learn to use. This particular Apple commercial was a response to IBMs popular business
computer and likely meant to undermine its strength in the business market, released just
when IBM was negotiating with Microsoft over their Windows 1.0 operating system (Bellis).
By intentionally removing the body of the human user, Apple enacted a rhetorical move
against IBM and Microsoft, highlighting the automated power of the Apple computer in
relation to PC systems; in other words, the Apple computer would be so easy for anybody
to use that presenting a person on camera was, apparently, not necessary or even
desirable in this case. Further, the commercials slogan Macintosh, the computer for the
rest of usimplied that anyone could be a user, so by avoiding exterior camera shots of
human beings, the commercial interpellated
all television viewers as potential computer
Despite these case-by-case reasons for marketing computers without presenting the
human body, a long-term pattern of avoiding third-person camera shots of the human
person continued throughout the 1990s with an even stronger emphasis on filming the
screen itself. In fact, many early computer television commercials filmed the screen for a
majority of the time. That these television commercials totally encompassed the television
viewer and put the camera in the position of a user whose attention was totally fixed on
the screen and whose mind was journeying inside the computer likely reflected a desire to
introduce the look and feel of using the computer to an unfamiliar American public; in the
early 1990s, only around 22% of households owned a computer (Level of Access).
However, the result of machine-centred presentations that masked the human user may
have strengthened the conceptualization of the humancomputer relationship where the
human was subordinate, submissive, engulfed or entranced by the computer screen.
A good example of a screen-obsessed commercial is the 1994 Macintosh ad with the
slogan you want a Macintosh.
This ad pictures an extreme close-up of the computer
screen. The television viewer sees only scrolling numbers, charts, graphs and then a video
of a woman talking. This woman is the only human presence in the television commercial,
and she exists on/in the computer screen, in a virtual space, in a small viewing box. During
the last few seconds of the commercial, the camera pulls back to reveal the
whole machine, no users in sight; no human person is pictured within material space.
As if the whole of the material world has disappeared, human life now only seems to
continue inside of the computer.
Similarly, the Windows 95 television commercial featuring four animated, coloured
squares dancing to rhythmic music never leaves the image of the screen.
What is
witnessed here is the liveliness of the new Windows 95 operating system, its charm and
ability to do several tasks at oncewith enhanced user-friendliness(Segal). However,
despite Microsofts intent to brand the new graphic user interface as fun and user-friendly,
supported by a massive marketing campaign upwards of 300 million dollars (Segal), this
FROM THE SCREEN TO ME, 19842008 343
Windows 95 commercial still shows no particular human user. Explaining why this machine
could be marketed as friendlywithout the need for a human to reflect back the
friendliness of the material world is emblematic of the extreme focus on the computer
happening throughout the early and mid-1990s. Interestingly, though, the user can be
interpreted as being pictured through the dancing squares. The happysquares
simultaneously, rhetorically, can represent the workings of the operating system and,
perhaps, the users who dance when using the system. Thus, this television commercial
imagines the users emotions, a user who is happy when inside of the computer.
Earlier Microsoft television commercials also feature extreme close-ups of the
computer screen; some lasting for the entire 30 seconds.
This pattern of screen
entrancement continues in the Windows 98 television commercial that begins with the
phrase where do you want to go today?This commercial slams through a series of fast
cuts, staying on the screen most of the time with a few interjected half-second shots of
kids playing computer games.
The slogan acts as the theme for this commercial and
emphasizes the idea that the computer is a means of travel, while the intense transfixion
on the screen suggests that getting there involves being encompassed or fully swallowed
by the computer.
Human beings were, by and large,
only featured in the Apple and Microsoft
computer commercials in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s when one of the companies
wanted to show frustrated users fiddling with the competitors poorly working operating
system or when they needed to dispel myths about computer use. In the commercials
designed to attack the competition, the camera was released from the all-encompassing
view of the screen because the computer was shown breaking down.
Similarly, in a
commercial where a popular myth like computers are hard for older people to usewas
being dispelled, people were shown only out of rhetorical necessity. This was the case in
one early 1990s Microsoft commercial featuring a woman returning to work late in life.
One other example of an early advertisement that pictured human beings in order
to dispel myths about computer use would be the famous 1984Macintosh television
commercial that first appeared during the Super Bowl. This commercial referenced
Orwells book 1984 and showed human beings as automatons in need of liberation. This
commercial did, in fact, show third-person shots of people. Nevertheless, the point of this
commercial was to assert that Macintosh computers will usher in freedom and revolution
and will liberate humankind from the fearful technological determinism imagined by
Orwell and others (Stein 170). People in this particular commercial were shown both to
negate the popular myth that the progression of powerful new technologies will
transform humans into automatons, as well as to show the American public that a
dark, conforming, restricting [computer design and innovation] environment can be
broken through(McCarthy). In other words, although some early computer television
commercials did extract the viewer from a journey inside the computer, those particular
commercials addressed apparent problems with computers and the computer industry or
with salient fears about computer use; therefore, those particular commercials gained a
special benefit from not presenting an all-encompassing computer screen.
It should be noted here that showing people using a computer is a highly persuasive
rhetorical move because it makes user identification realizable. In other words, the fact
that these two major technology corporations were presenting human bodies only in
limited cases and primarily when myths and fears needed to be addressed may
demonstrate the then trepid imagination about computers and a need to show people,
first-hand, that computers are not scary, but accessible and fun. In fact, considering that
commercials had to introduce a public largely unfamiliar with computers what it was like
to work through a screen, it is no surprise that early computer television commercials
focused primarily on the screen and on the experience provided by looking at/into the
screen. The limited use of human bodies may also demonstrate the reinforcement of a
superior rhetorical mystique that a journey inside the computer held for most audiences of
the 1980s and 1990s, strengthening a computer-centred and body-rejecting cultural
convergence around the humancomputer relationship.
For Henry Jenkins, the phrase cultural convergenceis a specialized term that
describes the new ways that media audiences are engaging with and making sense of
these new forms of media content(Media). If one considers Jenkinsclaim that cultural
convergence has preceded, in many ways, the full technological realization of the idea of
media convergence(Media), then the cultural convergences pictured and reinforced by
television commercials could be taken as harbingers of technological and market
realizations in terms of furthering a media convergence, or what Jenkins calls this
ongoing processof merging information structures(Convergence). To put it another
way, every new imagination of what computers are or can be part of the human or not,
relational or not, fearful or not may solidify and guide the orientation of subsequent
information products toward other products and toward the human.
If this is at least sometimes the case, then what becomes compelling about the
exploration of the later Apple and Microsoft television commercials of the mid- and
late 2000s is the future technological implications of what appears to be a third shift in
this cultural convergence, a convergence organized not around the body, but
organized through the body, presenting images of complete ubiquity. If Jenkins
observation holds, then more recent commercial presentations would suggest that
future technological innovation should include ubiquitous computing and a move
toward integrating computer hardware and the body. Of course, seeing the overall
course of cultural convergence happening here seeing all three phases can help
researchers contextualize new technological innovations, but at the same time, what
can also be seen is just how much the technological realization and technological
acceptance that created the second cultural shift contributes to the third shift in
cultural convergence; the relationships prove to be recursive.
The Transitional Phase and the Events that Shaped a Computer Culture
By 199899, computer advertisements demonstrated a notable transition in the
focus of their presentations. Apple released a series of television commercials promoting
the Power Macintosh G3 and the iMac G3. These commercials focused not on the screen or
on what the user saw when he/she travelled through cyberspace; rather, they focused on
the personality and desirability of the machines body, from an exterior point of view. The
iMac G3 computers became a sort of stage-show for the user to evaluate the machine
from an outside perspective.
The computers manufactured body, now re-designed to
look appealing and highly aestheticized with bright colours and soft shapes, spun and
FROM THE SCREEN TO ME, 19842008 345
entertained the user. Un-encompassed or no longer trapped within the computer, the user
was imagined outside of the computer, and the computer actively showed itself to the
user, putting on a show, dancing, earning the users attention. Presumably familiar with a
graphic user interface, users no longer needed to be shown the capabilities of the
computer or the experience of using one, but needed to be mesmerized by the computer
itself. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs said when unveiling the iMac G3, Apple leads when it
expresses its vision through its products, exciting you and making you proud to own a
In the Power Macintosh G3 commercial, the computers body dominated, spinning
and glowing, entertaining the television viewer with its presentation.
In the middle of
the commercial, the G3, shown from an exterior point of view, slowly opened its case like a
door to an alien spacecraft, offering the viewer a trip inside the computer. This commercial
parodied the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and used the corresponding music.
Thus, the commercial suggested that the computer was like a spacecraft, something extra-
terrestrial, and inside was a gift as advanced and magical as a benevolent alien from a
Steven Spielberg film. The script that accompanied the image Its not only the worlds
most powerful computer. Its also the most open-mindedsuggested that the power to
accept or reject the machine would be the result of the viewers open-mindedness or
willingness to walk inside and take a journey with an alien-like form. Yet, in this
commercial, no journey was shown, only offered. So the viewer was treated more like a
character from the Spielberg movie, someone who watched on the ground as the
spacecraft opened its door in that famous final scene. Consequently, the viewer retained
the choice to take this magnificent journey or not and be entertained by what amounted,
referentially, to the most amazing discovery in the history of humankind. On this point, it
may be worth noting that the configuration of this computers mother-board maybe
equivalent to a mother shipwas touted as a true, innovative discovery, making
the Power Macintosh G3 the fastest Mac or Intel-based machine on the planet
(PowerMac G3). The commercial acted through the films imagery to both demonstrate
the computers technological superiority and to offer an invitation to the viewer to try out
an Apple machine; most importantly, the commercial assumed that the viewer had a
certain autonomy and a free will independent of the computers guidance/control, an
assumption consistent with a camera that never entered inside of the machine.
Later, in 2000, Apple released the Think Differentcommercial that parodied the
intelligent computer named Halfrom the 1968 film, 2001, A Space Odyssey. This television
commercial slowly zoomed in on the infamous red button (Hal), and the voice-over argued
for the superiority of Macintosh computers in light of the fact that Apple did not fail to
plan for what was then known as Y2K. This commercial, like many of the previous ones, did
not show camera shots of human users, but it parodied the idea of an intelligent computer
taking over the world; its silly attitude toward the subject matter suggested that it
embraced the cultural shift away from seeing the computer as something that one is
controlled by to seeing the computer as something that one controls.
Unlike the 1984
Macintosh commercial that parodied Orwell, the Space Odyssey commercial did not
attempt to suppress cultural fears of technological determinism but seemed to make fun
of the fact that such fears existed in the first place. Whereas the commercial in 1984 was
dark and took its subject matter seriously, the commercial in 2000 clearly did not. It
represented, then, the transition into phase two, where human bodies were free of
computer control, working in a relationship with computers, living in a hybrid material
space that was more fun and more free because of computers.
Answering why the television commercials started to change and move away from
presentations based on machine envelopment/enclosure, technological determinism and
fear at this point in time is a complicated question. However, the transition can be
addressed, at least in part, by briefly considering a few concurrent events in the American
cultural landscape.
In 1996, historian Paul Edwards recognized a strong connection between the politics
of the cold war period and the view that technology entraps, endangers and controls
human behaviour. His book entitled The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of
Discourse in Cold War America argued that two computer-related discourses dominated
the cold war era. The first discourse that Edwards discusses is the closed-world discourse,
and the second is what he calls the cyborg discourse. For Edwards, the closed-world
discourse equates to the language, technologies, and practices that together supported
the visions of centrally controlled, automated global power at the heart of American Cold
War politics(7). He claims that the world at this time was a radically bounded scene of
conflict ... It [the closed-world] is a world radically divided against itself. Turned
inexorably inward, without frontiers or escape, a closed world threatens to annihilate
itself, to implode(12). Here, technology is intimately connected to a closed fear and a
sense of dread concerning the increasing automated control of weapons. Similarly, the
cyborg discourse describes the subjects who inhabited the electronic battlefields of global
cold war(172). In this metaphor, Edwards asserts that human beings were imagined as
being less-than human as a result of technology. In other words, throughout the cold war,
computers were not, according to Edwards, seen as freeing and positive tools for the
advancement of the human, which would be characteristic of phase two thinking. The cold
war may take some of the blame for the prolonged existence of phase one, extending an
epoch of thought characterized by Heidegger and given popular momentum in America
by McLuhan.
The end of the cold war mentality, however, is not sufficient to explain the sudden
decline of the interior view of the computer and the end of a need to rhetorically address
fears about computer use. It should, therefore, be noted that computer ownership
dramatically increased between 1997 and 2001. In fact, only 18% of households had a
Web-connected computer in 1997, and 55% had one in 2001 (US Census). Weber and
Evans make a good point when they claim that users who adopt a technology encourage
others to use it: All the members of the social system in which the innovation is
imbedded ... are connected in the common objective of seeking and spreading
information and knowledge about the innovation(441). Undoubtedly, this increased
exposure to computers contributed to an increased feeling of relaxation or comfortability
with the computer. Not surprisingly, then, as ownership increased, the computer
transformed from something foreign to something domestic and natural. The technology
receded, and the computer became a mundane home device, much like a refrigerator or
lamp. As Landow noted, any pervasive technology performs as a prosthesis ... This
becoming invisible the process of naturalization by which a phenomenon or some of its
implications appear to be ‘‘natural’’ makes the technology invisible(58). Viewed from
FROM THE SCREEN TO ME, 19842008 347
this perspective, it is not so surprising that Apple and Microsoft television commercials
progressively lost their fearful, deterministic edge and included more exterior views of the
machine and then more users of the machine. However, there is another historical event at
that same time that may have played a role in the decline of such cultural attitudes Y2K.
Andrea Tapia of Pennsylvania State University explains the importance of Y2K on the
technological views of Western society, noting how the technological threat and the
millennial myths perfectly converged in 1999/2000 (484). She writes:
At the end of the twentieth century, the computer became a symbol representing all
technology on which Western society had come to depend. The year 2000 (Y2K)
computer software problem threatened the reliability of the computer and, as a result,
threatened the stability of the dependent relationship. (483)
Researchers like OLeary, Grosso and Bull, had previously theorized millennialism and
explained its emotional and religious significance for multiple segments of American
society, showing how important the transition into a new millennium could be for many
Americans. Therefore, the lack of disastrous or apocalyptic events on 1 January 2000 likely
generated a re-alignment of the millennial myths and a re-alignment of the role of the
computer in such myths, consequently, generating, for some, a re-alignment of emotional
responses related to the computer. Wendy Robinson notes that:
The smooth functioning of the everyday is precisely what we most depend on the
technological infrastructure to do ... The threat of disruption was what the Year 2000
(Y2K) crisis or non-crisis was about: Nothing happened, which was interpreted as good,
if somewhat disappointing ... it [technology] is supposed to be boring, dependable, to
recede into the background. (3)
Since computers did not cause an economic crisis or a world war, they were viewed as
successful, as doing what they were supposed to do. Arguably, therefore, since the Y2K
problem was widely recognized as a potential programming problem, the success of the
computer may have translated into success for computer programmers. Those who rejected
the technology the survivalists and protectionists learned, whether completely justified
or not, that a life lived with a computer may not necessarily be a life lived in subordination to
the computer. After Y2K, there was little reason for computers to be feared.
Undoubtedly, this computer success and lack of computer fear is reflected in the
subsequent television commercials Orwellian drama is no longer taken seriously, and the
computer no longer holds the same encompassing position over the human, to guide and
dictate bodily behaviour, as it once did. In fact, the increasing commercial emphasis on the
body and on bodily movement in material space can be seen as the aesthetic correlate to
the cultural convergence around a philosophy of freedom, an emerging technological
personalism wherein the machine is viewed in terms of offering itself to the user or viewed
simply as a helpful, carry-along partner or friend.
Phase Two: Embodied Hybridity
Phase two can be easily illustrated by looking at the presentation of Apple and
Microsoft television commercials which focus less and less on the computer and more
and more on human action and human mobility. The G4 lampshadeiMac commercial
from the early 2000s quickly makes the point.
In this commercial, the computer is
seen sitting in a storefront window, and it follows the movements of the man walking
by the window. The computer catches the mans attention and interacts with him,
suggesting that the computer is alive and social. More importantly, however, the
commercial suggests a relationship, one where the computer mimics the mans bodily
movements. The computer now follows the mans lead from behind a pane of glass.
The computer is set out on display, waiting for an owner like a puppy in a pet shop,
while the man is entertained by its cute impersonation, leading the interaction through
the movements of his body.
The notion that computers entrap the mind, separate it from the body, limit
bodily freedom and are not at all connected to material existence, has now been flatly
rejected. Interestingly, just a few years before this commercial debuted, Katherine
Hayles published The Condition of Virtualitywherein she rejected the phase one idea
that the thinking self can be separated from the body or can be trapped inside of the
computer. Hayles ultimately makes clear the inability for any information to exist
outside of a medium (75). She, thus, reconnects the experience of using the computer
with the experience of living as a body in the material world. Her work gives the
material body the priority in the computerhuman relationship by insisting that the
body is what feels all human experiences.
Likewise, a cultural convergence away from dualistic disembodiment was quickly
expressed in computer television commercials released in the early and mid-2000s. In
2001, Microsoft launched an advertising campaign in support of Office XP that featured
the commercial now popularly known of as the banned Microsoft commercial.
commercial features a young guy and girl making-out in an apartment. The girl removes
her shirt, and the guy, subsequently, cannot manage to undo her bra. Suddenly, a
computer prompt box appears on the girls back and asks for a password. The guy does
not know the password and is denied access. In this commercial, the viewer is not sure
whether he/she is watching a short film on the computer or if the scene is real and the guy
is imagining a computer prompt on the girls back. Although this particular commercial
keeps the computer in control of what happens (the guy succeeds in removing her bra or
he does not), human beings are pictured, and it becomes suddenly clear that it is the
body through the heat and intensity of a sexual encounter that feels all the human
experiences. The body matters again, and the interjection of the computers control over
the girls bra is only a comical device. The computers control capability is no longer a
fearful feature, and the password prompt only serves to regulate who can feel the intense
bodily excitement that can, so the commercial suggests, be experienced through using
the computer and knowing the right code. Computer and body, in this sense, unite.
Following 2001, the invention of the iPod ushered in a whole series of commercials
with dancing people and moving bodies.
In fact, the first iPod commercial can represent
the full maturity of phase two. This commercial shows a man sitting behind his computer
downloading songs, and then he jumps up from his desk and breaks out into a
spontaneous dance in his apartment. Here, the desktop computer is left behind him, and
the man moves freely in material space. The computer is now under his control.
The user
is no longer journeying through the computer, but the computer, or a fun element of it, is
FROM THE SCREEN TO ME, 19842008 349
now journeying along with the user. The human user is free, moving, independent
and joyful.
Phase two can be characterized, then, as the wonderful exit out of the machine; it
is a feeling of freedom and renewed control over ones life that the computer enables
but does not dictate. Whereas phase one imagines human beings travelling through a
cyberspace controlled largely by the computer, with the user being encompassed, phase
two erases all feelings of entrapment by making play with the computer or play in
virtual space an essential and fun part of living in material space. Computers are no
longer imaged as cold and human-less machines that disintegrate humanness, as in the
cold war era, but are warm and friendly devices with relational inter-beingness. This
conceptual shift from rationality to emotionality and personality seems to make sense as
computers become more connected to daily routines and become more portable and
Just how much each incremental technological change served to further
strengthen a cultural convergencearound relational or human-centred conceptualiza-
tions of computers, though, is unknown. Beyond the larger cultural movements such
as the end of the cold war and the rise of computer ownership, etc. the influence of
technological changes must have, however, contributed to the move into phase two
thought. The aesthetic alterations that Apple instituted in the G3, for example, making
the computer look more friendly, and then in the G4, equating the computer with a
common household item by nicknaming it the lamp shapelikely further pushed users
to shed fears and adopt a certain attitude toward the computer. Similarly, the invention
of the iPod likely moved consumer attitudes significantly in a new direction, equating
computer devices with movement, independence and fun. In short, a recursivity
between cultural convergences and technological realizations is undeniable, and such
recursivity highlights a quite obvious reason for the overall shift to phase two the rise
of mobile technologies.
Undoubtedly, the rise in mobile phone ownership, like the rise in computer
ownership overall, encouraged phase two thinking. Mobile phones are, by nature of
their design and purpose, moving in material space and under control of the user in
material space. Therefore, phase two thought is inseparable from mobile phones and
mobile computers generally. The importance of this development nearly goes without
saying. However, the terms used to construct a conceptual understanding of how
computers and mobile phones, given their relatively recent widespread use and
connectivity, should now interact with physical, material space can indicate the cultural
dominance of phase two thought and, perhaps, also hint at a future movement toward
phase three.
Many academics studying mobility have outwardly recognized a shift away from
metaphors of enteringand immersingoneself in virtual space and have advocated a
new conceptualization. For instance, in an article from 2007, Dr Adriana de Souza e Silva
argues for the notion of a hybrid spacein order to emphasize the effect of the Internets
outward movement. Silva rightly recognizes that:
users do not perceive physical and digital spaces as separate entities and do not have the
feeling of enteringthe Internet, or being immersed in digital spaces, as was generally
the case when one needed to sit down in front of a computer screen and dial a
connection. (263)
Consequently, Silva understands virtual space as moving out into material space, or being
embeddedin material space, and she offers this as a reason to re-name space. Because
mobile devices create a more dynamic relationship with the Internet, embedding it in
outdoor, everyday activities, we can no longer address the disconnection between
physical and digital spaces(262). Silva uses the term hybridto describe a blendingof
virtual space and material space. By standardizing hybridity, she shows how clean lines of
demarcation between two environments can no longer be drawn. This much is true, but
pertinent to this paper is the fact that the characterization of space as hybridembraces
the outward movement of the computer and indicates the maturity of phase two thought.
Importantly, the loss of demarcation between material space and virtual space implied by
words like hybridfosters no connotations of fear or danger, and this, again, is typical of
phase two. Nevertheless, the obvious difficulty inherent in naming any space that seems
blended or hybridmay also point toward the beginning of a transition into a third phase
where the articulation of boundaries between computers and humans, material space and
virtual space, is soon becoming unnecessary.
Phase Three: Ubiquity
Silvas article is one of the more recent and more thoughtful articles in a whole series
of academic articles seeking to standardize terms that describe what happens when
computers come out into material space and affect human perceptions of material
environments. In 1999, for example, Milgram and Colquhoun coined the term mixed
realityto describe situations where material reality is augmented by a virtual system
such an extent that the user cannot distinguish between the two realities(5). Similarly, in
2002, Lev Manovich used the term augmented spacesto articulate zones where virtual
space and material space overlap (1). Like the word hybrid, these terms do not elicit any
connotation of fear, and they, therefore, indicate a position ranging from neutrality to a
position in support of the influence of the computer on human action and perception.
They also represent an era where naming the ways technologies interact/overlap with
humans is still of some importance. However, as zones of overlap proliferate and as
computer technologies are incorporated with human activities and increasingly affect
human perceptions, naming boundaries will likely become a fruitless pursuit and then
become entirely unimportant.
At this point, American culture may have moved into the beginnings of a third
phase, a new popular way of thinking about the computer, which desires to erase all
boundaries between the human and the computer, or more accurately, simply does not
care to articulate any boundaries. This third phase can be seen in two popular television
commercials released in 2007/2008, respectively. The first commercial (or series of
commercials) features Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates hanging out together. These
commercials are entirely about human beings. There are no direct shots of any computers,
and in most of them, no shots of computers at all.
This, in and of itself, is a complete
reversal from the first Apple and Microsoft television commercials. Nevertheless,
computers are so well integrated into the Microsoft and Apple brand and the American
FROM THE SCREEN TO ME, 19842008 351
landscape that showing computers might, at this point, be unnecessary. After all, what
seems to matter the most in these commercials is engendering attachment to Bill Gates,
indicating how important it is now in this current cultural convergence for the human user
to feel good about his or her computer (and computer maker) since having a computer is,
like the budding friendship between Bill and Jerry, equivalent to starting a new
The second set of commercials that demonstrate this third phase of the human
computer relationship is the ongoing Mac versus PCsaga from Apple
and those Ima
PCcommercials from Microsoft.
Both series of ads focus completely on human beings.
What is different about these ads, though, is that all boundaries between human and
computer are entirely erased. People proclaim proudly, ImaPCand the two guys in the
Apple commercials are the computers. So it is not the computer that represents the
human user or that guides the user on a journey into another space; it is the human that
stands in for the computer and becomes the computer while living in material space. This
third phase, then, is characterized by an erasure of boundaries and the absence of a
motivation to articulate separation from the computer. Of course, like all other
representations of computers at all other times in history, the choice of representation
reflects an intentionally targeted marketing move to brand one company as more hipor
radicalor stylishthan another, and these commercials are no exception; yet, the choice
must also be compatible with the current cultural convergence around the idea of the
humancomputer relationship as well as imagine a humancomputer relationship that will
drive notions of what will be considered hip,stylishand radical. The Im a Macand Im
aPCcommercials mark the move of a culture into a convergence where total ubiquity is
The future of technological realization may well exist through the erasure of
boundaries between the human and the computer. In fact, the technology industrys new
focus on the body as computer and on computer hardware as fitting into or onto the body
is paving the way for a seamless integration of body and computer the use of the skin,
for example, as the transmission device (Whats RedTacton), the use of the hands to
retrieve information from the projection on any surface (Maes) or the shrinking of
computer technology down to the nano-scale for incorporation into the body (Waldner).
As these technologies become increasingly common, there will be little need to name
boundaries or distinctions. Words like hybriditywill disappear. People may very well
happily describe themselves as PC compatible.
Concepts like ubiquitous computing, which aim for a future saturated with
computers (Bell and Dourish 133) and stress natural-seeming interfaces, context-aware
applications and automated operations, represent not just a blurringor hybridityof
boundaries but an integration of technologies. It is fair to say that future contexts will
be imbued with computers, and computers will augment humans operating in those
contexts. In a radical reversal from the claims of Marshall McLuhan, who at one time said
that it was not naturalfor one medium to overtake another, the convergence of mediums
will seem completely natural(McLuhan 180). Suddenly, MicrosoftsImaPCcommercial
does not seem so far off-base.
This paper has attempted to examine Apple and Microsoft television commercials in
order to articulate how the humancomputer relationship has changed over the last
several decades. Clearly, computers are becoming more intimately connected to all
aspects of human life, offering new experiences, and being treated as significant and
personal partners. What the study reveals is that the cultural convergence of the human
computer relationship can be at least partially mapped through advertisements and can
help to unveil the future direction of technological realization.
The question now is whether the move toward total ubiquity or invisibility will
result in any loss of awareness about the technologies that are working together in a
media convergence to organize human behaviours. Although this paper has been largely
descriptive of the shift from phase one to phase two and has sought to explain the move
to phase three, the effects of phase three on human logic and human behaviour remain
an open question. Whether, as Martin Heidegger once suggested, technology will thrust
man into the danger of the surrender of his free essence(32) depends on what that
essence is and how one thinks about the nature and future of human freedom and
computer integration. But what seems right is that any trend toward technological
invisibility requires of scholars a strong memory and a steady will to make the effects of
new technologies noticeable as they blend into our walls and our backs and grow to be
as natural as our limbs.
1. This is especially the case with desktop computer commercials. Commercials featuring
laptop computers picture people more regularly but for specific rhetorical purposes that
are addressed later in the paper; even so, the overall trends for Apple and Microsoft
commercials discussed herein still remain consistent across phases.
2. Scholars such as David Wills in his 2008 book Dorsality have argued that the body is an
already technologized entity as the result of evolution; however, I am using the word here
to refer specifically to the integration of the computer hardware onto or into the body.
3. One scholarly article by Sarah Stein explores Apple’s ‘1984’ Macintosh ad as a contributor to
the ‘cultural discourse of new technologies’ and seeks to understand ‘the hegemonic
processes engaged in technological dissemination’ (16970).
4. Despite different product specializations, Apple and Microsoft television commercials can
be directly and exclusively compared because the two corporations are regularly placed in
reference to each other, their corporate histories foster a natural comparison (Bray; Stross),
but more importantly, they both regularly display computers in their television
commercials and consistently, over time, articulate a vision of the humancomputer
relationship for the general public.
5. See
6. See
7. The concept of ‘interpellating’ audiences is derived from Louis Althusser who believed that
ideologies hail, reference or ‘interpellate’ people as certain types of subjects (11820).
FROM THE SCREEN TO ME, 19842008 353
8. See
9. See
10. See
11. See
12. One exception here is a little known Microsoft commercial called this stuff is powerful
from 1995; however, this commercial switches back and forth between rst-person close-
up shots of the screen and shots of human actors. See
qvN5y5ee_-s&featurerelated. Another exception of an early 1990s commercial featuring
human actors but not apparently using human actors to rhetorically address some fear
about computer use includes an early laptop commercial featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
13. For examples, see Crowd Control,
Want to see some dinosaurs? and
Problems in a diner
14. See
15. See
16. See
17. See
18. See the G4 cube commercial as another example of the transition into phase two: http://
19. See
20. See
21. See
22. See
23. Note that although Milgram and Colquhoun advocate mobility in 1999, they still
understand mixed realityas an encompassing of the machine through virtual reality.
Given the date, this mixis interesting and can be seen as transitional work.
24. See
25. See
26. See
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