Where's our generation's moon landing? What Sunday's "Mad Men" says about technology in 2014
Every week, I write about "Silicon Valley," HBO's factually accurate but wildly uneven series about starting a tech company in these frothy times. Last Sunday, "Silicon Valley" took the night off, but in its stead, another popular show spoke to America's fascination and fear of technology, and in a far more sophisticated way than "Silicon Valley"'s light, breezy comedy usually does: "Mad Men."
As devoted viewers know, more than anything "Mad Men" is a show about change. Its first six seasons focused largely on the change associated with cultural movements, like feminism, civil rights, and consumerism. Sure, the viewer sees a lot of technological change too, but it usually functions as little more than window dressing to place the show in time, shifting along with the characters' clothes and hair styles (or acting as a source of humor: "ha ha look at how excited they are about a microwave," etc.)
In its seventh and final season, however, set in the summer of 1969, the ceaseless march of technology begins to play a far greater and more disruptive role in the lives of the characters.
Four episodes in, the ad agency SC&P purchases its first computer to improve their market research efforts. It's an intimidating black box, framed by the camera to look like the monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey," which every Film Studies 101 student knows symbolizes the kind of life-altering technological advancement that you can't go back from and that takes no prisoners.
Of course, the show is quick to torpedo its own clever imagery: Sensing that Don Draper is afraid that the computer will steal his job, the pro-computer Harry Crane tells him, "It's not symbolic." To which Don coldly responds, "No, it's quite literal."
It struck me that, even at this early stage in the computing revolution, businessmen in suits and computer geeks alike were already thinking about how to use machines for advertising -- or, put more bluntly, to sell people more crap they don't need. It reminds me of the famous line from Facebook advertising savant Jeff Hammerbacher: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." Apparently that sentiment was as true in 1969 as it is today.
Well, not quite. A lot of technological advancement happened in 1969 but the most notable milestone was of course Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, which also serves as the historical event anchoring last night's episode. As someone who wasn't alive yet, I often fail to recognize just how significant that event was to the lives of Americans. I scoff when my parents invoke the moon landing when complaining that "America never does anything great anymore: something something Obama."
This basic sentiment (Obama namedrop optional) is shared by the older generations in tech as well: Peter Thiel has spoken at length about how non-tech people no longer feel proud of American innovation like they did when the U.S. landed on the moon. At our last PandoMonthly, Mike Maples lionized the women and men behind the moon mission and suggested that today's startups could learn a thing or two from them. By cutting between awestruck families, both literal and de facto (like Don, Peggy, and Pete), the episode does an great job capturing the sublime wonderment felt by the millions of Americans glued to their television sets as Armstrong steps foot on the lunar surface and provides a one-liner so good even SC&P's patriarch Bert Cooper is impressed.
And yet the show frames this moment less as a giant leap for mankind, and more as an isolated incident where technology actually brought people together instead of tearing them apart. That's the feeling we get from Peggy's advertising package pitch to the executives of a fast food restaurant called Burger Chef the following morning:
I certainly can't tell a better story than the one we saw last night. I don't know what was more miraculous, the technological achievement that put our species in a new perspective, or the fact that all of us were doing the same thing at the same time.
Sitting in this room, we can still feel the pleasure of that connection, because I realize now we were starved for it. We really were. And yes, we'll feel it again when they all return safely. And yes, the world will never be the same in some ways. But tonight, I'm going to go back to New York and I'll go back to my apartment and find a ten-year-old boy parked in front of my TV eating dinner.
Now, I don't need to charge you for a research report that tells you most television sets are not more than six feet away from the dinner table. And that dinner table is your battlefield and your prize. This is the home your customers really live in. This is your dinner table. Dad likes Sinatra, son likes the Rolling Stones, the TV's always on, Vietnam playing in the background. The news wins every night. And you're starving. And not just for dinner.
What if there was another table, where everybody gets what they want, when they want it. It's bright, it's clean, there's no laundry, no telephone, and no TV. And we can have the connection that we're hungry for. There may be chaos at home, but there's family supper at Burger Chef. It's a brilliant piece of writing by Matthew Weiner and Carly Wray that captures both the progress of the human race and the threat technology poses to our ability to connect to one another. That statistic about most televisions being within six feet of the dinner table is not unlike the worrisome smartphone usage stats we throw around today, such as how we look at our phone 150 times a day, or that for every hour less we spend on computers and in front of television sets daily, we spend two more on mobile devices. This technological disconnect is nothing new. And again, instead of trying to solve it, those "brightest minds," in this case Peggy and Don, care only about selling more ads.
At the end of the episode, white-haired LSD-addled Roger Sterling stages a coup to wrest control of the firm away from the technologically-minded Jim Cutler and Harry Crane, who want to build the "agency of the future" with the help of their precious computer. In its place will be a more old-fashioned firm devoted to storytelling -- the kind of firm every creative mind, including Peggy and Don, wants to work for. Between that and the moon landing, it's as exuberant an ending as the show could have given us.
On paper at least. It's a hollow victory, for there are things the viewer knows that the characters don't: Computers will change everything. We're still waiting for another "moon landing" moment. Now, every technological advancement comes with a caveat -- those smartphones and self-driving cars are designed to be efficient data collectors, the better to sell us ads or to keep governments apprised of our doings. It's also telling that Burger Chef, the real-life fast food restaurant that becomes the focus of this half-season's creative drama, no longer exists.
Peggy and Don and Roger have preserved the ad agency and, in spirit, the America they want to inhabit. But the viewer knows (and, judging by Don's face at the episode, full of unease as he struggles to take in this moment of victory, he knows too) that this world is on the decline. And the sense of excitement over technology as a symbol of human progress will soon morph into fear, disconnected obsession, and shallow consumerism. Who knew Peter Thiel and Don Draper had so much in common?