Published: June 21, 2024

By Joe Arney

As a college student 20 years ago, Steven Frost had a poster of Apple’s “Think Different” campaign hanging in their Alfred University dorm room.

That campaign touted the company’s quest to be something other than a tech titan. It was about supporting creatives like Frost, who saw computers as tools to unleash their artistic potential. Advertising to support the campaign highlighted icons like Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso and Amelia Earhart to celebrate the “crazy ones” whose vision and determination set them apart from the rest.

For Frost, one of Apple’s latest ads is threatening to undo a lot of the goodwill the “Think Different” campaign created in the artistic community.

The “Crush!” ad is 68 seconds of watching symbols of humanity’s creative achievements—sculpture, paint, music, film, video games, novels, photography—destroyed in an industrial compactor, which then opens to reveal the company’s shiny new iPad Pro.

“I can see the logic behind the ad,” said Frost, assistant professor of media studies at the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. It looked to them like an attempt to play off the viral videos showing everyday objects crushed under car tires—“but in the current climate, this was a bad idea, and super tone deaf.”

“Everything exists in a context, and in the context of a place where A.I. is literally replacing creatives, this was not the moment for this ad.”
Steven Frost, assistant professor, media studies

The current climate, of course, is one where artists are forced to ponder a future where generative artificial intelligence can create screenplays, images, designs and so on with just a few user prompts. In May, the company took the unusual step of apologizing for the ad and reportedly canceled plans for a national television campaign.

“What’s interesting is, less than two months after the ad comes out, Apple announces they’re integrating ChatGPT into iOS,” Frost said. “Everything exists in a context, and in the context of a place where A.I. is literally replacing creatives, this was not the moment for this ad.”

Seeing the use case for A.I.

Frost is not only an expert in media studies, they also are a creator who works in both digital and physical media. They are an accomplished textile artist who brings a passion for weaving to classes as well as Slay the Runway, an annual fashion creation and exhibition event for Boulder-area LGBTQ+ teens.

Steven Frost works with a student during a workshop for the Slay the Runway event.But while they’re critical of the Apple ad, Frost is more upbeat on the use of generative A.I. than you might expect. In fact, they worked on a project in 2016 that put a novel twist on speed dating. Called “Screen Dating,” the exhibit featured 12 screens that participants could cycle through, interacting with “celebrities”—actually chatbots trained on the works of Gertrude Stein, RuPaul, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others—to see what it would be like to interact with an algorithm.

Notably, exhibit creators Frost and Joel Swanson—a faculty affiliate at CMCI—fed the chatbots text, rather than engage in the wide-scale scraping OpenAI and others have used to teach their chatbots.

“There are definitely reasons to be suspicious of it,” Frost said. “But while I know it’s a really unpopular opinion, in order to stay relevant, we all need to evolve. Otherwise, what happens to artists when we can just ask a machine to make a postcard, a poster? Those people are going to have to learn new skills, learn how to be part of a collaborative process with those machines.”

Transparency on teaching models

Part of that, of course, involves those technology companies being more honest about the tools they’re creating—their potential to displace creatives, yes, but also how they were trained. Frost envisions A.I. as a collaborative tool in line with The Jetsons or Knight Rider, as opposed to Black Mirror. It’s no surprise, then, that they want companies to be more collaborative, as well.

“What if tech companies were transparent about how and where their chatbot was trained?” they said. “It’s like if I’m buying junk food—if I see sugar free, I know it’s unhealthy, but it makes me consider that it was manufactured, that there was a process. So, for an A.I. model—what’s in it? Is it soy? Where was it grown?”

Collaboration with companies is also important, they said, because relying on regulation is not the only option.

“At this point, it’s more like thinking of different ways of approaching how those models are trained, and making sure that creatives whose works are getting pulled into these learning models get paid for the work they’ve done,” Frost said.

Perhaps that’s what most troubles them about that Apple ad. Because its tone reminded Frost of another commercial that seized the public imagination 40 years ago.

“The ‘1984’ ad was a breakthrough in that it reimagined what computers could be used for, and a literal breakthrough in that there’s violence and destruction at the center of it,” Frost said. “This ad is clearly referencing ‘1984.’ In a sense, they’re showing how far they’ve come and that they do all these things right, but the tone couldn’t be further from the young, upstart artist protagonist in the original ad.”