Google again: thinking outside the skull


The first question for the marketer, according to Theodore Levitt, is “what business are you in?” 


 In Google’s case, this question has become more difficult to answer. 

Certainly, we could say that they are in the information or the information access business. And this is true. But it does not describe how they create value in the world…so it does not tell us how to proceed as marketers: build the brand, define the product, address promotion questions, choose targets and so on. (Clearly, Google is a marketing oddity from the start, and adjustments must be made.)

I think of Google as engaged in two larger projects. (I am now reporting my own experience of the brand. Think of this as an act of auto-ethnography. I know this sounds painful, and believe me, it is.)

Project 1: Google intelligence

Google is now my connection to internet and to this extent it is part of the exoskeleton that amplifies my cognitive capacity. This is odd for someone born at the middle of the last century. I am inclined to suppose the boundaries of the body are the limits of my intellectual equipment. Clearly, the internet changes all that. 

At the very least, it is a better memory. I can now access a good deal of what we know about the world. I can access much of what we think about what we know. This sort of “recall” puts to shame even the most capacious memory.

Blogging allows me to put “idle thoughts” before a formidable audience.  They help me think these thoughts. Issues of origin and ownership blur. This is a collective cognitive event.  Now, I’m thinking outside the skull. 

Normally, I take this new endowment for granted. But then my internet connection fails. I am suddenly stupider than usual. The electronic enablement of my intellect is suddenly down. I am thinking inside the skull.

Project 2: Google sociality

Here too we are moving away from literal definitions to virtual ones. As an old fashioned model, I am inclined to think that of my friends as people I have met, spend time with, stay in touch with. The internet changes all that, too.

When I was in Korea a couple of years ago, I was interested to see teenagers using the internet to build and maintain quite different social networks.  They were sending lots of messages to large groups of people. They were, as I came to think of it, “pinging the hive” almost constantly. Their parents had gathered a small group of friends together as they passed through high school, college, university, and so on. Korean teens were keeping many more acquaintances from every association to which they belonged. 

My group of personal friends remains small. But certainly, the internet and this blog gives me a group of, what shall I call them? People I know quite well despite the fact we have never met. In fact, I sometimes think I can hear TBSA readers in my head as I write. I think this is called “introjection.” Normally, you introject the voice of a family member. I don’t know what kind of symptom it represents when it’s a blog reader. (You know who you are. And thanks a lot.) 

Google does really have a play here, but with things like Talk, it soon will. 

In sum

What business is Google in? If this reckoning has anything to recommend it, they are in the business of making us smarter and more social. They are helping blur the boundary between the person and the machine. This is a substantial redefinition of personhood. They are also insinuating the individual into new and larger social networks. 

From an anthropological point of view, this is interesting. It marks the reworking of cultural categories and relationships. From a marketing point of view, it’s interesting, too. It represents the creation of massive value that share price may or may not fully capture. 

Google isn’t about information everywhere.  It’s much more Gibsonian. It’s about selves that stretch out of bodies onto the net.  It’s about friendships (or whatever we call them) entirely or largely mediated by the net.  These are more substantial value adds with which to build the brand, especially when it’s time to "get serious" in this department.  

(filed from Manhasset, Long Island)

1 thought on “Google again: thinking outside the skull

  1. Peter

    You’re definitely onto something, Grant.

    You may be interested in some work along similar lines in other disciplines. Donald MacKenzie, sociologist at Edinburgh University, Scotland, has written recently on the diffusion of agency across a group of people and their information/software tools in modern financial trading. He says it is not an individual trader who acts (has agency) but a group, which comprises people outside the firm as well as inside, together with their artefacts.

    These ideas have also arisen in theoretical computer science for the design of distributed computer systems, in the theory of co-ordination artefacts of Andrea Omicini and colleagues at the University of Bologna, in Cesena, Italy. (See my blog entry for 25 August 2005 for links to the work of both these people.)

    From my limited knowledge of anthropology, it would seem that there are interesting parallels between ideas of extended human intelligence, sociality and agency to related beliefs in other cultures.

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