So the military-industrial complex walks into a bar...
Notes on Sam Adams x Boston Dynamics, the "Meta Lite" bar bummer + more!
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In 1961, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the American people of a looming and “disastrous” threat:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.
Prescient as ol’ Interstate Ike was on the matter, he must have realized that the simpatico forces of capitalism and imperialism would drown out his prediction. In the intervening half century, they’ve done just that. From monstrous “pain guns,” to dysfunctional missile-defense blimps, to now-President Joe Biden’s $768 billion Pentagon budget, the private-public buddy dramedy between the U.S. defense establishment and the profit-hungry private sector has yielded no shortage of boondoggles and bloodshed over the years. Its “unwarranted influence” has also seeped into American culture, creating moments of uncanny consent-manufacture and bizarre banalities of evil aplenty.
Anyway, here’s Samuel Adams’ 2022 Super Bowl commercial, “Your Cousin From Boston (Dynamics.)”
For the uninitiated, some introductions are in order. “Your Cousin from Boston” is a beer-commercial caricature that Sam Adams cobbled together a few years ago out of Good Will Hunting DVD cases and blue collar stolen valor. (Disclosure: I own stock in Boston Beer Company, Sam Adams’ parent company, but it does not influence my coverage of the company or its brands.) As I’ve written before, the boorish Boston bro character is grating both because that’s what the role calls for, and also because it’s just a lazy, antiseptic remix of toxic tropes about working-class white-jabronism that weren’t funny to begin with. But this semi-sentient Timberland boot, though tedious, has precedent, having appeared in Sam’s Clydesdale-tweaking Super Bowl end run1 last year.
His mechanical co-stars, on the other hand, are a curious new addition2 to the beleaguered beer brand’s commercial oeuvre. Meet Spot (the yellow dog-like one) and Atlas (the one that looks like the lovechild of a stormtrooper and Cleatus the Robot), two of the most-recognizable machines ever rendered semiautonomous by Sam Adams’ crosstown ad partner, Boston Dynamics. If these robots, with their uncanny biomimicry and spindly exoskeletons, seem off-putting or even menacing to you in a commercial for a mixed 12-pack of hazy IPAs, you’re not alone.
“I think seeing Spot in an ad like this is like if the Goodyear Blimp was replaced by a Reaper [drone] or a Black Hawk helicopter for aerial shots of a football stadium,” said Kelsey D. Atherton, a military technology journalist who writes the newsletter Wars of Future Past. The bots’ producer, after all, has its origins in the same military-industrial complex that spawned those high-tech weapons of war. “Boston Dynamics is best known for viral videos of robots doing goofy things, but it started as a military contract,” he said. To understand the high-stakes cultural significance of this low-brow beer ad, its robots’ cutesy star turn must be scrutinized in context. So, let’s!
Founded in 1992 as a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the robotics firm’s early years were spent doing research and development funded by the Pentagon and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA.) Boston Dynamics has lately tried to distance itself from the military, focusing instead on commercial applications. The firm’s robots do have plenty of non-martial uses, but because it has sold some machines3 to police departments, the pivot has been dogged (ahem) by criticism from civil rights groups, police reform activists, and normal Americans who are wary of its martial roots, and/or don’t like its alienating metal beasties.
Which, like… the things look like hatchlings from Dr. Arliss Loveless’ spider tank from Wild Wild West, can you really blame them? “In Black Mirror, the robot dogs are scary because they hunt people, but in real life the robot dog is unsettling because it gives police and the military another way to do their normal functions, but with even less chance to see the people on the other side of the robot as human,” Atherton mused to Fingers in a recent direct-message conversation. To wit: every six months or so, a new, non-IPA-related report emerges of cops using Spot4 to help answer 911 calls or do community patrolling. These incidents freak people out because the bots are visually freaky, but also because their arrival in the breach between the human police and the flesh-and-blood citizens they nominally serve underscores how little empathy5 the former had for the latter to begin with.
Knowing what we now know about the military-industrial complex (and the resultant militarization of the police) it doesn’t take Eisenhower levels of foresight to imagine a future crawling with weaponized semiautonomous robots. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, spelled this concern out in March 2021 following a viral clip of an NYPD-operated Spot bot alarming Bronx residents while responding to a possible burglary in the Bronx:
One of the things that makes these robots so unnerving is that everybody implicitly understands that the possibility of weaponizing them will continue to hang out there like a tempting forbidden fruit for law enforcement.
That understanding doesn’t even have to be implicit, because rival robotics firms are already putting guns atop their own mechanized dogs of war. Boston Dynamics insists it never will: “Any weaponization of the robot is strictly prohibited, as clearly outlined in our terms and conditions and our ethical principles,” a spokesperson for Boston Dynamics told Fingers in an emailed statement.
[Correction 2/11/22: A previous version of this story misidentified the source of Boston Dynamics’ quotations. The story has been updated to attribute its response to a company spokesperson, not the representative that relayed that response. Fingers regrets the error.]
Of course, even if they’re not literally armed, robots can still be used to project force by streamlining the logistics of conflict.6 “Scouted positions, mule-hauled ammunition, or robot-delivered hand-written orders all work towards directed violence,” argued Atherton in a November 2021 essay titled “Hounds of the Uncanny Valley.” In our interview, I asked him to contrast those applications with Spot and Atlas’ star turns in Sam Adams’ Super Bowl commercial.
“The ‘selling point’ of Spot here is that it is visible and disarming, in a way robots rarely are, but the selling point for the robot in police/military contexts is that it's a good dextrous sensor platform that can climb stairs, scout caves and buildings, and find ‘bad guys’ before police or soldiers get shot,” he said. In other words, no matter how much the bots seem like neat-o canoid/android drinking buddies, they come from a lineage of military machines engineered to assist with projections of state power. Even today, unarmed and with expanded non-violent purview, they’re not exactly radiating with chill vibes. “It is, at a minimum, as least as bad as using, like, a bomb squad robot in an ad,” Atherton said, noting that the Massachusetts State Police have used Spot for exactly that purpose.
In other words, these bots carry baggage. So uh… what are they doing in this IPA ad? Boston Beer Company declined Fingers’ request for an interview about the ad, and declined to respond to Atherton’s critiques of it. Boston Dynamics, for its part, is “thrilled” to have its tech featured as Your Cousin’s beer bros in the biggest advertising event of the year. “We hope fans enjoy seeing the robots show up with Your Cousin and friends in a fun, engaging way,” its spokesperson wrote.
It’s all upside for Boston Dynamics, which gets to showcase its gawkish machines7 in the most flattering, normalizing light possible: slamming brewskis with human broskis. The win for Sam Adams isn’t quite as straightforward, but it’s still a win. Trying to advertise its hazy IPAs on merit in a market awash in them would be a fool’s errand, and niftiness/novelty gimmicks are always safe bets in the beer advertising business. Maybe Boston Dynamics even split the brewer’s ad spend, or just picked up the tab outright. Who knows!
More interesting than the process of creating Sam Adams’ robot beer ad is what it tells us about ourselves, the rank-and-file guzzlers of the American drinking public. All advertising, and especially mass-market television advertising, both reflects and reinforces the social mores of its audience. That descendants of military-grade robots can crush brews and do Fortnite dances with a cheap Southie simulacrum and elicit laughter instead of dread is less an indictment of Boston Beer Company or Boston Dynamics in particular, and more of our near-total acceptance of the military-industrial complex and its cultural assimilation in general. This tracks! Americans love beer and belligerent “patriotism”8 in equal measure, so brewers have rallied round the flag for decades, positioning themselves as Troop Respecters™ to siphon social license and sales revenue from American militarism while eliding the conflicts, consequences, and costs that result from it. Considering how much this country venerates its ever-more-militant police these days, the commercialization of military technology into semiautonomous cop machinery offers a logical extension of that marketing equation. Judging by the positive, uncritical reception that this Wicked Hazy commercial is enjoying so far, it looks like the old human calculus will hold true for the robot hounds of the uncanny valley, too.
Atherton’s “galaxy brain” take is that the real (if inadvertent) cultural product of this ad isn’t the Wicked Hazy IPA 12-pack itself, or even the robots that drink it, but “a seamless fusion of lifestyle brands and consumer-military robotics.” It’s not even that far-fetched! Such extramilitary fusions regularly happen in other product categories, albeit usually at the cosmetic, not technological level9. Eradicating that martial influence, “unwarranted” though it may be, from American culture (to say nothing of the private defense industry’s regulatory capture at every level of government, lol) is probably impossible at this point. But to understand and counter its influence, we have to identify its many vectors and manifestations. Beer advertising, with its cultural sway and beloved product, is most certainly one of them. Yesterday, it was troop homecoming videos. Today, it’s IPA-drinking robots. Whatever tomorrow brings, expect it to be dazzling and different—and as ever, completely dissociated from all the old boondoggles and bloodshed lurking just offscreen.
📬 Good post alert
💋What if we kissed in Miller Lite’s metaverse bar?
Miller Lite’s metaverse bar, which I wrote about a bit last week, launched on Tuesday. I stopped by for the grand opening, which just means I logged into Decentraland (a browser-based, open-world Sims, basically) and tried to explore the virtual watering hole for as long as I could before my laptop had an absolute meltdown. From what I saw, it was pretty corny—Duke Nukem/Doom-caliber graphics, glitchy “gameplay,” and gestures towards bar culture that would make an Applebee’s interior decorator wince. Maybe I’ll go back to watch the Big Game commercial that the brand is planning to air there (to evade Anheuser-Busch InBev’s exclusivity on in-game beer advertising; I know, it doesn’t make sense to me either.) Did you check out the Meta Lite bar? Want to meet me in there for a beer this weekend?
Some additional observations about the experience on my Twitter thread here if you’re interested which you probably are not.
🧾 The Settle-Up
Don’t miss out, follow Fingers on Instagram today. It’s free, and your feed will thank you. (Not really, that would be weird. But you know what I mean.)
Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s biggest beer company, owns the exclusive rights to advertise beer during the Super Bowl’s national telecast. To get around this, other companies often buy regional airtime on a per-market basis, so national audiences will not see this ad, and didn’t see last year’s either. I have a big story and timeline out today at VinePair about how all this works!
Surprisingly, this is not Spot’s first appearance in a major beer brand’s ad campaign. ABI used the robot in an early 2021 rollout push for Michelob Organic Hard Seltzer:
I showed the Mich Ultra campaign to Atherton. His take: “The Michelob Ultra ad uses a more alien body and approach than Sam, which goes for the clean yellows of the modern Spot. But the point of the Michelob ad is rejecting the artificial, while the Sam ad is about selling the familiarity of something that initially seems unusual.”
Boston Dynamics’ spokesperson told Fingers in an emailed statement that “the majority of our customers are industrial companies,” and that “[i]n public safety applications, Spot serves as a tool that keeps people out of harm’s way and helps operators assess potentially dangerous situations from a safe distance.”
Atlas has gotten a lot less cop-adjacent press than Spot, but its origins are not entirely divorced from the military-industrial complex either. The bot was developed for a 2013 DARPA prize competition intended to speed the development of… robots [that] might assist humans in responding to future natural and man-made disasters.” Joked Atherton: “The fact that Atlas was first made to put out fires in aircraft carriers is a far less feel-good story than it doing TikTok dances.”
Is “Police Outsourcing Human Interaction With Homeless People to Boston Dynamics’ Robot Dog” too on-the-nose for you? Not on-the-nose enough?
And its founder: the bald-headed (human) character who appears at the end of the 60-second ad is Boston Dynamics’ chairman/founder Marc Raibert.
Smart quotes here because the mainstream usage of the term has been so sullied with indiscriminate pro-military jingoism that it’s basically useless!