2017 has been a terrible year all around. Tragic man-exacerbated disasters in North and Central America captured our collective attention in the fall, and even though winter is in full swing, the fires in California are only just starting to slow down. All of this made Google’s year-end project “Year in Search” (or previously known as “Year in Review”) all the more potent, and this year’s edition has been stuck in my head for a long time, so long that I am writing about it more than two weeks into the year.
My first experience with this ad was on Christmas Day when I saw a friend of mine on Facebook share Google’s post on her Timeline. While this particular friend did not attach an overt sentiment along with her share, it would not take more than a quick scan to see that the reactions of the internet audience range from sincere appreciation to proclamations of sorrow—in other words, deeply felt emotion was exhibited all around. My clueless self clicked on the video and watched it till the end—by when I was so overwhelmed that I had to rest back in my chair. The ad featured video documentation of the year’s biggest events playing around terms typed into Google’s search bar. Heart-wrenching tragedies, frivolous trends, and optimistic overtures are all set to dramatic music. I thought that this ad, Year in Search 2017, was a masterpiece. As I scrolled through the video archives, I realized that Google had been on this schtick for some time. In fact, the format of the 2017 video was almost identical to the one from 2015. (The 2016 video was a little more experimental and pictorial, hence, not as immediately relatable) This has been a long-running advertising campaign on Google’s part—I must just have missed the articles in the previous years—but if this year’s coverage is anything to go by, the online media has mainly been very positive about the “inspirational,” “moving,” and hopeful ad.
Our trust in Google is well known, and these advertisements work to further that image of well-intentioned genius the tech behemoth wants to portray. However, as any astute follower of technology will know, Google’s clean reputation has preceded its actual corporate practice. But criticism of any profit-making company’s morality is trite, and other writers have covered it extensively elsewhere. Ads are meant to portray the best version of any particular company. It is absurd to expect promotional tools to be deeply introspectively and self-deprecating (unless it fits the narratives of redemption or comeback, who doesn’t love that?). Google’s Year in Search is troubling for another reason. It is troubling in its blatant and (successful) attempt at sublimating our emotional lives into the functions of the company’s core product.
I already hear it, the retorts of the resident cynics, “Emotional ads have always existed! How is this any different?” In a way, this response is understandable, and any cynical viewer of ads will most likely not be as easily affected by Google’s attempt (since their joylessness extends towards all corners of lived experience). However, for the rest of us, these ads represent a shift in advertising paradigms. It is an erasure of the line between the hard and soft sell. Before, emotional ads functioned using subliminal messaging, where the products are usually featured in quick shots, the periphery, or revealed at the very end, away from the main action. Even the infamous Folgers coffee commercial featured the coffee only very briefly. Now Google has literally shifted the product into the center of our vision, and instead of being a ham-fisted way to shoehorn in the object of interest, the object of interest, the search bar, is indispensable for our emotional experience of the ad. This shift moves beyond the subversive methods of classical conditioning; it is instead an outright assertion that searching with Google is a central part of how we deal with our emotions.
To make such an assertion is not unthinkable by any means. But how they can make this assertion is what should strike us as worrying. How is it that we, a population desensitized by constant corporate advertising, are so receptive to the psychological weight that words in a long rectangular box have on us? Google’s ad campaign reveals the reality of our times, where the new products of capitalism have transcended crude object-fetishism. Like the Himalayan fungus yartsa gunbu, which infects ghost moth caterpillars precisely at their moment of growth by molting, our desire for convenience and productivity has left us vulnerable to the allure of technological solutions. Just as the yartsa gunbu grows through the caterpillar while superficially retaining the hosts’ shell, through a parasitic interaction with our habitus, these products have assimilated into our mental regimes before subsuming these regimes on their terms of existence—effectively taking over through clandestine means. How many of us think immediately to take to Twitter to express our frustration, Instagram our self-esteem, and Facebook our outrage? As the saying goes, “If there wasn’t a Snapchat story, did it happen at all?” These technologies are no longer just expressive tools, they are the expressions. As such, it is not out of the ordinary when an ad featuring Google’s search bar makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. After all, Google’s your best friend, and like any best friend, it is reliable and helpful. However, beneath the affable exterior of Google Doodles, we find that it is designed as a tool for profit and exists to eventually sell your most intimate inquiries as commodity.
Writing in 2005, right before the most recent tech explosion, Baudrillard’s description of our state of affairs then is still relevant, “Caught in a vast Stockholm syndrome, the alienated, the oppressed, and the colonized are siding with the system that holds them hostage. They are now “annexed,” in the literal sense, prisoners of the “nexus,” of the network, connected for better or worse.” To equate tech companies such as Google to colonizers and their users to the oppressed may be slightly sensationalist, but it only takes a quick description of an average individual’s daily interactions with technology to see the similarities. Even though the pessimistic French philosopher can be too apocalyptic, the reality of his vision is dangerously close. While it is ridiculous to try to persuade anyone not to use Google—to do so would be retrograde and Amish—it remains essential for us to be deeply critical of the attempts by technology companies to further assimilate our last available spaces of separation (whether it’d be through charity, volunteerism, activism, and protest) into their for-profit milieu.