By: guest contributors Callan Bignoli and Dustin Fife
As we are writing this, yesterday was the Super Bowl, an annual football competition that has become almost as famous for its halftime show and commercials as for its football. This is one of the most watched events in North America, so its commercials have an incredible reach. One commercial stuck out to us in particular and sent us to Twitter in order to sardonically gripe. The commercial itself emotionally resonated with many people, but not far under that surface is something much more beguiling. The commercial explores how an elderly person could use Google’s many tools, especially their “artificially intelligent” assistant, in order to record and remember their past. A person endearingly asks Google to remember things about their partner while pictures of the couple are displayed throughout. On its surface it was charming and we can easily imagine people in our own lives that this could serve.
However, and even if you can guess where we are going, we want to make two things unmistakably clear:
- There should be affordable and accessible tools that help anyone and everyone remember their history and archive it as they see fit.
- More importantly though, it should not be Google or any other major, data-driven, for-profit corporation.
The commercial makes clear how Google can serve this particular customer, but what is always left unsaid is how all that information serves Google. What do all our memories, pictures, and thoughts do for Google (or Facebook or any other corporation)? How are we all unknowingly helping build the surveillance state?
The giants of surveillance capitalism tugging at our heartstrings during the Super Bowl is nothing new and it is not the only time that these companies weaponize sentimentality. Verizon stepped up the sentimentality this year as well, offering an ad that claimed 5G isn’t brave while showing us a montage of first responders doing things that looked quite brave. It was weirdly reminiscent of Apple’s declaration that removing the headphone jack from its phones was an act of courage, except this time Verizon didn’t outwardly declare themselves to be courageous. They just talked about themselves over a supercut of people doing courageous things. There are many other examples. The “Parisian Love” Google ad, now over a decade old, showed the trajectory of a relationship in progressively committed search queries. Not to be outdone, Amazon joins this party with its commercial of a father helping his daughter make dinner for her date using Alexa and Amazon Echo and displaying casual acts of kindness captured by Ring surveillance cameras in a neighborhood near you.
Librarians know the sweet grandfather in the “Loretta” commercial is going to come to them for help setting up his Google assistant. They have been doing unpaid labor for tech companies for decades now, teaching and training and actually getting to know people like him (let’s call him Ernie). They put aside their qualms with Google’s business model to help Ernie do something that will make him feel better and honor the memory of his wife. However, as librarians, we also want to train the Ernies of the world and help them understand what Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others get from their information. We want it to be clear that the world we see and experience is being changed by what these companies collect.
These “heartstrings tech” ads have another goal as well, which is to make anyone who takes umbrage with or criticizes their messages into an unfeeling malcontent. How can you possibly hate Ernie?? Well, it’s not about Ernie. We love Ernie and hope he comes to book club next week. What we decry is the growing use of facial recognition to limit civil liberties and over-police communities of color. What we decry are targeted ads that verge on the edge of capitalistic scams. What we decry is surveillance with only passive consent. We love Ernie, but these commercials are sentimental half-truths that endanger democracy and privacy.
Now, there have always been commercials that evoke strong emotions, and we are not immune to crying during advertisements, but we need a better mechanism for clear consent when it comes to surveillance capitalism. We need libraries and educational institutions especially, to not contribute to this melange of surveillance. Without greater understanding and respect, we are abandoning privacy and the most marginalized among us. (And let it not be lost on us that we collaborated on this article using the Google Docs.)
Callan Bignoli is the Director of the Library at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Dustin Fife is the Director of Library Services at Western Colorado University.