At Harmony Labs we’ve been thinking a lot about technology. While some tech innovations have clearly changed the world for the worse, they’ve also produced 90% effective COVID vaccines in less than a year. There’s no going back. We need tech, but we need it to work for us, not against us. And we need the stories we tell about tech to center us — the humans — so that people don’t feel powerless to advocate for “healthy” tech, now and in the future.
The Mozilla Foundation foregrounds this kind of human agency in their call for trustworthy AI:
We need to move towards a world of AI that is helpful — rather than harmful — to human beings. For us, this means two things: human agency is a core part of how AI is built and integrated and corporate accountability is real and enforced.
Some AI-focused media narratives foreground human agency as well, like the Augmented Intelligence narrative we identified in this recent analysis. Augmented Intelligence presents technology as augmenting our intelligence, but capable of being unfair and downright dangerous. We, humans are responsible for designing and regulating it, so that it helps us and doesn’t hurt us. This analysis looked at survey and online news data, but we wanted to know how often people encounter this narrative in other forms of media.
Boston Dynamics robot dancing to Do You Love Me?
So, we looked at TV, starting with more than 80,000 adults living in more than 39,000 households in the US who participate in a TV consumption panel. We connected all the shows they watched on TV in November 2020 with the closed captioning transcripts of those TV shows and the ads that accompanied them. (Drawing those connections is a technical monster. If you want to know more about the data science, please don’t hesitate to reach out.)
What we found were lots of ads for robot vacuums. Oh, the robot vacuums. These little friends make magical maps of our houses, clean while we’re out, talk to us on our phones, and — most importantly — never get tangled up in their cords or discommode us in any other way.
Advertisement for the Roomba**®** Robot Vacuum from iRobot
These robot vacuum ads convey a narrative we call Wishes Granted. In this narrative, technology is a tool made by humans. But instead of having risks as well as benefits, it operates like a magic wand, solving our problems quickly and without worry. This narrative shows up not just in robot vacuum and other smart home tech ads, but also in ads for coffee makers, laundry detergent, and even menstrual pads.
Surprisingly, at least 67% of the content audiences consumed about technology — artificial intelligence, machine learning, and algorithms included — was in Wishes Granted-type ads. That’s 5 times as much exposure to Wishes Granted as to any other tech-related narrative!
At any given time, audiences are consuming many different narratives, and storytellers will be most successful if they understand that narrative landscape as a whole. A big motivation for us in building the Narrative Observatory has been to create a way to help our partners understand this narrative landscape and spot the story opportunities and threats.
The sheer dominance of the Wishes Granted narrative has the potential to create resistance to the more nuanced Augmented Intelligence narrative, by constantly reinforcing the consequence-free magic of technology. But it is also doing some of our narrative work for us. It’s inspiring audiences with the tremendous promise of technology and artificial intelligence to make our lives better. So all we have to do is to move audiences a bit, to understand that tech comes with risk, and that we humans have the power to control as well as to invent.
If you are a researcher who would like to access the data used in this analysis, and other datasets too, please consider becoming part of our research network. We’re always happy to geek out on methods, so please reach out to us to learn more about our models and how we do what we do.