Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Life, Googled

I saw a television advertisement for Google yesterday. Not for any particular service offered by Google, just for the Google brand as a whole. I find it kind of strange that a powerful company with virtually no competition for its major services would run advertisements in the popular media simply promoting its own name. But I suppose it’s aimed not at encouraging people to use Google, but at encouraging them to use Google for everything. I’m taking the fact that they’ve seen fit to run the ad as a good sign that Google does still have competition and people are not yet flocking to it for all their worldly desires.

Yet the style and content of the ad does give the impression that that’s precisely what they are promoting. It consists of a lengthy montage of web searches, e-mail messages, videos, status updates, and so forth, and clearly the main idea is that every facet of life can be served by a Google application. It’s a familiar style of advertising – one that tries to saturate the viewer with beautiful or inspiring imagery to make them desire a more intimate connection with the world being depicted on the screen. And the consumer is meant to come away from it thinking that the given brand will help them to obtain that closeness.

I have two pieces of commentary to bring to bear on Google’s application of this advertising style. One observation is general to the commercial, and one is specific to a brief part of it that I find objectionable.

My general criticism is that the advertisement as a whole falls flat in its effort to inspire me with a barrage of imagery, drawn from disparate corners of human experience. It’s a type of content that I’ve considered effective elsewhere, for instance in the 2008-9 Discovery Channel “I Love the World” campaign. There’s a straightforward reason why I consider the Google ad to fail where that one succeeded. Google’s montage presents every scene as being two steps removed, rather than just one.

The images included in its montage are fairly familiar, on the whole. They are simply of people talking, or of significant but commonplace daily events like a child’s first bike ride. These things are perfectly accessible without a technological medium, and yet when I see them on the television screen, it is perfectly clear that they are being channeled through something external to both me and the person being depicted. Where the visual is of a Google+ chat session or the like, I find myself looking at a screen upon a screen, and that leaves me quite far from the reality of another person’s life. And where the scene is not affixed to a separate little box, it is a poor quality image, shaking as someone films the event on a handheld video camera.

The Discovery Channel ad was similar in basic intent to the Google ad, in that it was offering a mode of access to other events, experiences, and parts of the world through an intermediary, whether television media or computers. But two things differentiated the Discovery Channel visuals: They were professionally produced and they depicted experiences that were clearly remote and uncommon. Thus, I enjoyed crisp, almost lifelike views of African tribal ceremonies, and skydiving, and undersea exploration, and I got the impression that the Discovery Channel was capable of bringing me closer to things that I could not easily or quickly access on my own.

By contrast, the Google ad reminds me that the use of some of their services might actually put additional barriers between me and the people or circumstances I wish to access. And if what I’m trying to access is just people roughly like me and experiences similar to those that I’ve had, I can step out my front door and gain access to something of the same kind without Google’s help. And personally, I think I would be better off doing so in many cases. As so often happens, I worry that I’m practically alone in that thinking. I worry that most Americans have eschewed any breaking point on this subject, and that they think it’s actually preferable to use a technological middle man for everything they used to do for themselves.

That brings me to my particular gripe with the scenes depicted in the Google ad. At one point it shows someone Googling the phrase, “How to be a better dad.” Have we really come to a point where we think that even that is the sort of question that Google can resolve for us. I know some people think that widespread access to the internet means it’s no longer necessary to memorize any factual information whatsoever. Are we now at the point that retaining ethereal information, standards of personal behavior, and methods of character development are also considered obsolete?

There are some things that you don’t Google. I don’t care how sophisticated their algorithm becomes; no information that can be posted to the web takes the place of experience, practice, and acquired wisdom. Anyone who would Google the phrase “How to be a better dad” has no business being a dad. After all, he seems to be under the shockingly erroneous impression that effective parenthood is easy, and that the problem of child-rearing can be resolved with the click of a mouse, as opposed to, say, rigorous study and earnest commitment.

It troubles me to think that Google is encouraging people to lean on their brand to resolve fundamental human questions for them. Just so that I can beat them to the punch, I would like to recommend against Googling the following phrases, in case their next ad suggests that a web search will provide the answer to any of them:

“How to live my life.”

“How to believe in the one true faith.”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Should I commit suicide?”

“Do I have a soul?”

“What is justice, Polemarchus?”

If at any time you have Googled one or more of these phrases, go outside and talk to somebody.

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