BLTs, Moms Everywhere, New York City
Let’s watch a video. It’s not new, but it’s still worthy of comment. This video, titled Bits and Atoms was released to accompany Uber’s new logo and "brand experience” in February 2016. As of October 2016, it has under 49,000 views on Youtube so it’s hard to say who the intended audience was. It’s a deeply weird video. Let’s take a look:
As a premise, the entire “bits and atoms” concept is a bit creaky, but what I want to focus on specifically is the video's list of things for which the atom is responsible: “from the BLT, to moms everywhere, to New York City." This fanciful litany is meant to hint at the unfathomable breadth of stuff comprised of atoms (as if we needed reminding?) but as a list, it sucks.
The BLT, moms, NYC list isn’t the first list in this video — it’s the fourth. The earlier lists are nothing out of the ordinary, describing the ways the bit has changed the world; what this represents for Uber; and some characteristics of the bit as expressed in code. These lists are conventional in that their items belong to the same class or category. Across genres, lists tend to keep like with like, whether it’s a cover letter (“my skills include filing, stapling, and MS Paint”) or dating profile (“I like hiking, laughing, and burritos”). With “the BLT, to moms everywhere, to NYC” we’re faced with a needle-scratch list that shows an audacious disregard for categories.
There is a grand history of absurdist lists, where an organizing principle is introduced then subverted for humorous or sublime effect. In Jorge Luis Borges' essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, he writes of a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” that divides animals into fourteen categories:
(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
Well, that escalated quickly. By setting up unusual but acceptable encyclopedic categories like “embalmed” and “tame” then swerving to the abstract (“innumerable”) and the imaginary (“drawn with a very fine camelhair brush”) the list creates a pleasing frisson and a great gag on the nature of classification. Foucault went on to borrow this list as an inspiration for his book The Order of Things, an investigation into modern forms of knowledge.
So the disorderly list has a noble precedent. And the BLT, moms, NYC list is disorderly, certainly: jumping hither and yon from a type of sandwich (BLT) to a category of personhood (moms everywhere) to New York City (a built environment and its inhabitants). Each list item is conceptually and categorically distinct, and each has a specific intended emotional impact. BLT: comforting! classic! American! delicious! Moms everywhere: we all have moms! aw! where would we be without them! New York City: dynamic! cosmopolitan! center of culture and industry! And all of it made from atoms. Wow, atoms are exciting. But without an implied rule set up at the beginning of the list (“this is a list about types of animals!"), we’re left without a point of departure. Why should I care about the crazy leap from sandwiches to moms?
The failure to cohere may be intentional, showing off the all-encompassingness of the atom, but as a rhetorical device it lacks punch. It’s sloppy. The thing that makes the list ineffective is the same thing that makes the entire video inane — it speaks in such broad strokes that it becomes meaningless.
A cynical viewer, however, might assume that Uber are happy to abandon the chance for rhetorical finesse in order to collect a grab bag of nice things they want to be associated with. When you’re aiming for global market domination and preparing to abandon your contingent labor force for driverless cars, perhaps it makes sense to try and get your audience on side with some feel-good word salad.
Repeat after me: BLTs! Moms everywhere! NYC!
I'm feeling better already.