In our recent round-up of the emerging visual themes for 2013-2014 we noted a trend we called The Double Take. New ads from Dell, Guinness and Pepsi explore this visual metaphor of the Double, expressing excitement, anxiety and wonder at our strange recent double life

We now live in two worlds: the world of physical, fleshy, material things, the world of hot and cold, hard and soft, rough and smooth; and the world of virtual, digital, immaterial things. But these worlds are no longer completely separate, I know this because I checked, with my fingers and thumbs on the touchscreen of my smartphone, moving images round, touching the image, making it big then small, shifting shapes around that exist on the invisible boundary between the tips of my fingers and the surface of the image as it attaches to the screen, as it is the screen.

Suedhang / Cultura / RF
Suedhang / Cultura / RF

This is a truly new experience that the brain, body and emotions are adjusting and adpating to. In a fascinating radio show on BBC’s Radio 4, The Design Dimension, Jack Schulze the Principal at futuristic design studio BERG, describes his world changing experience of the touch-screen capacity of the early iOS system. The phone’s design merged the edges of the phone with the screen, and as Schulze describes it, the image seems to exist on the surface of the phone. “When you touch it with your fingers, you pinch-zoom it, you open your fingers up and the photo grows larger, and it does so at the same speed that you move your hands it’s as though it was stuck to your fingers.” And the thing is, Schulze continues with a degree of wonder, “that has no physical analogue, there is no historical precedent for that, it doesn’t happen in the real world, you can’t do that on photos or polaroids and [that] for me, is emotionally incredibly striking, that experience, to have that degree of control over an image in your hand, in this tiny sliver of metal and plastic.”

The touchscreen changed our relationship to the image, making our relationship to imagery  both more casual and more intense, more practical and more dreamy, and most of all, more tangible in ways that we haven’t quite yet worked out. Sociologists use the phrase ‘mobile intimacy’ to describe the way in which smartphones have eliminated distances between people, created new connections and networks, and all of this is more intimate because we do this on a device we carry round in our pockets.

The smartphone image for example exists on the boundary we built that never existed before, the one between the identity of the flesh and blood person of everyday life, and the slightly more playful, exhibitionist identity of social media. Playing with boundaries is a familiar idea in technology advertising but is captured here most vividly by Dell.

Guinness, playing off the white and black design of the stout and the committment it takes for a non-drinker to taste it, position this Double Take as two alternative lives, two sisters, and two choices as both sporting sisters have a stake in the outcome.  Two alternative universes. The Double Take is about making you think, reflecting, and Guinness positions this as a choice. Which world would you choose?

Pepsi’s Twice In A Lifetime Superbowl ad is about revisiting moments in a life, an autobiographical theme likely to feature more as a greater percentage of the population gets older. Its storytelling mixes the spectacular with the documentary, the celebrity and the citizen, blending both to deliver a story that’s odd and compelling. Football fan Rory O’Connor recalls a 1970 visit to the Superbowl, where he saw Carol Channing perform the half-time show. O’Connor thinks he is in a documentary, but turns out he’s in an ad for Pepsi, in which Channing appears to perform her half-time spot for a group of elderly citizens playing bingo. And Rory’s experience, his life, now exists as a shareable digital ad that’s been watched online (not including the original TV spot) by over half-a-million people.

The idea of the double in Advertising in the digital age is nothing new, there’s a whole business and marketing literature around The Doppelganger brand – the other side of a brand created through memes by bloggers, activists, consumers that shadows the brand in the offline world. Brands understand the division and connection between these two worlds.

As BERG’s Jack Schulze alludes to, our new technologies are pushing human beings into uncharted territory.  Our smartphone culture, where information from any time and place can be accessed at any time and place enables us to outsource functions like memory to search engines, is psychologically and emotionally compelling. You must notice that barely perceptible time-lag, the cognitive difference between the intensity, buzz and gravitational pull of the small screen, and the moment when you come out of the screen return to the world of flesh and blood? Just one more tweet? Please? In a world where business strategists see science pushing economic and technology change to the max, how will we feel?

The question posed by Spike Jonze’s new movie, isn’t whether we will have a relationship with our virtual double or confidant, but how will we view and relate to this supremely important virtual figure who conducts our networked relationships.

In the transition to this strange new world of active intelligence (a kind of “Siri Plus”) this image of The Double is likely to play out in different ways. This figure of The Double has already been played out in a slightly different way in the world of ‘character design’. As Lars Denicke, co-founder of the pioneering Pictoplasma festival on character art has suggested, the explosion in character design at the turn of the millennium was partly due to a need for ‘navigators’ of this new online world, and partly as graphic, pixel-pioneers of a new world of visual communication.

These odd, cute, graphically simplified monsters were a mix of virtual pets, symbols of wordless picture-lead communication and most of all, graphic tourist-guides in the new ‘cyberspace’. Beyond the association with creativity, cool illustrators and a desire for a cracking series of wallpapers, it’s not difficult to see why Nokia hooked up with Pictoplasma.

But we’re now at a moment when the gateway to this infinite world of internet connectivity is in our pockets. What kind of digital figure will represent us, who will manage all our digital interactions? And, as Spike Jonze sketches out in Her, what will our relationship be like? What will this new character look like?

This emerging figure of ‘the Double’ is shorthand for a new kind of interface. The image that lives between two worlds. The Double and the Double Take is a perfect visual metaphor for a global culture with the opportunity and anxiety of living everywhere and nowhere, all at once, living on the border of two worlds – the flesh and blood, and the digital.


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