Google’s Benevolent Interfaith Big Tent

The scene opens in a bustling restaurant in Delhi, where a young woman leans in close to her grandfather, whose eyes sparkle with memories of his childhood in Lahore, Pakistan. He points to faded photograph of two young boys: “This is me. And this is Yusuf.” Every evening they flew kites together, before stealing jhajariyas from the sweet shop owned by Yusuf’s family.

A harsh reality interrupts these wistful recollections: “When partition came, we had to relocate to India overnight. … I miss Yusuf a lot.” The grandfather’s voice breaks, and now we understand. Geopolitical conflict, ongoing over six decades later, tore him away from his beloved friend. Distant memories keep the wound open, save for an impossible miracle to heal this life defined by absence.

Who will deliver the miracle? And what would it even look like? Google’s caption preemptively suggests that there must be hope: “Partitions divide countries, friendships find a way.” More specifically, the pastoral sway of Google gives them away, through an omnipotent knowledge and a universal embrace that transcends geopolitical cleavages and restores relationships wrenched apart by colonial violence.

At face value this commercial—which was released November 13, 2013 and which immediately went viral on YouTube and Facebook—tells a heartwarming story about reconciliation and reunion. But, of course, this reading is too simple, in a context carved in and through colonial and neo-colonial violence.

The Google spot celebrates the final death of a British colonial past by celebrating the benevolent supremacy of multinational corporations, the salve for ethnic and religious strife.

The benevolent supremacy of Google

If the combination of a generational divide and a haunted past limit the grandfather’s ability to imagine a future of reconciliation, the granddaughter retains hope in the better horizons of a new technological age.

After hearing the story, she returns home, opens Google India, and tracks down the phone number for the sweet shop her grandfather mentioned. Within seconds, she has called the store on her smart phone, and Yusuf’s grandson—who answers—has likewise opened Google to research visas for a reunion too long denied.

We can understand the implications of this storyline by putting it into conversation with its longer historical context. The logic of the plot—that Google’s pastoral power can heal colonialism’s wounds—resembles cultural tropes that have been central to US foreign policy since the end of World War II.

In opposition to Europe’s violent colonialism, Americans preferred to think of themselves as practicing a “benevolent supremacy.” As this idea circulated in media productions and other cultural texts, a national public increasingly understood US interventionism as a courageous, even self-sacrificial, project to protect global freedom. Meanwhile, however, the US found a salient alibi for the ways it maintained colonial power imbalances in pursuit of economic and political interests abroad.

The Google ad marks a slight shift—the appeal to the benevolence of the US nation state emerges indirectly, insofar as Google remains a US corporation. More directly, we witness an argument on behalf of corporate power that transcends individual state sovereignty and which uses its global reach to stitch fragmented communities together in a multicultural tapestry.

As Google extends its reach, the commercial suggests, it establishes the conditions for cultural unity, as the whole world embraces under its big tent.

Neoliberalism and the benevolent pull of Big Data 

As we learn from the commercial, this tent is expansive enough to include Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs on either side of the India-Pakistan partition.

As I have written elsewhere, the notion that corporate expansion can create the conditions of transcendent multicultural and pluralist unity is one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism. We can think about neoliberalism as an unevenly applied set of economic and political policies premised on the idea that free markets secure freedom and flourishing. Within this framework, nation-states ideally serve as subordinate enablers of capitalism as it forges a renewed multicultural village.

This is the subtext for advertising campaigns that advance a not-so-subtle message that conspicuous consumption initiates subjects into an avant-garde multicultural global public.

In a context in which belonging is forged through participation in free markets, the shape of religious practice may also change. For example, Kathryn Lofton has described secularism as a “kaleidoscopic buffet” in which spiritual seekers choose their religious and spiritual practices. Lofton calls upon scholars to interrogate what plausibility structures serve as dominating, even compulsory, guides for spiritual seekers awash in a world where traditional religious doctrines lack exclusive grip.

According to Lofton, Oprah—who tells her audience what to buy, what to wear, what to read, and what to eat to achieve Your Best Life Now—is one effective guide, paving a way through the onslaught of consumer choices.

The difference, of course, is that Google does not directly proffer a salve of consumption; it forms a multicultural public through its online search platform, one that is so prophetically omniscient that it can anticipate its users’ needs.

With the Google ad, we have a new kind of pastoral guide—one who is less concerned about what we buy, and more concerned about how we physically move through the world according to its irresistible—but oh-so-welcome—pull.

For example, Google anticipates the granddaughter’s needs before she even can articulate them. Her search terms move from vague to specific: “park with ancient gate in lahore,” evolves into “oldest sweet shop near mochi gate lahore,” evolves into “fazal sweets,” evolves into the momentous, game-changing phone call.

Within the commercial, the boyhood friends’ triumphant reunion—everything from pinpointing the location of Fazal Sweets, to warning the grandson that it is raining in Delhi, to tracking the arrival of Yusuf’s flight from Pakistan—is premised on Google’s unbounded access to data. Google has so much information, that it almost seems to read the granddaughter’s mind. But who can fault them for it? If benevolent big data can heal partition, who are we to protest?

All this places a new spin on recent disclosures that Google harvests its users’ information and sells it to advertisers, not to mention the revelation that the National Security Association infiltrated Google’s data stores in its campaign to spy on citizens.  Indeed, this commercial carries out a backdoor argument toward Google’s march toward omniscience:  by giving over our information to Google—or simply ignoring the fact that this is already happening—we join in its benevolent campaign to build a more harmonious world.

Ultimately is not just this towering search engine that heals the wounds of the India-Pakistan partition: it is all of us who contribute to Google’s base of knowledge. We love them for it.

This affective pull is exactly why we need to interrogate the premise and context of the advertisement and so many others like it. But when we take a step back, questions arise. Do we truly think that worldwide corporate expansion creates the conditions for interfaith peace? Will we forget that partition was not an inevitable conflict over religious difference, but rather a direct outcome of colonial violence—not unlike the corporate neocolonialism carried out in those places today, very often in the name of extending a corporate ethic of multiculturalism?

Google’s “Reunion” commercial invites us to shed these doubts and bask in the joy of Google’s benevolent interfaith sway. The video concludes with the two men, worn with age, embracing with the timeless recognition that they thought would never come. A miracle.

Cut to a screenshot of Google.com.

Cut to the friends sitting cross-legged in the rain, hands stretched skyward.

Perhaps they are reaching toward Google’s all-knowing satellites, guardians of their lives.

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