In Search Of

{NOTE: This was the introduction to an essay I wrote for “Free,” an exhibition at the New Museum that opened in October 2010. It was published on the show’s online catalog, which the museum has since deleted}

In 2009, Microsoft launched an ad campaign to promote its search engine, Bing. One commercial starts with a blonde complaining about her meal at a sidewalk cafe: “We really need to find a new place for breakfast.” “The Breakfast Club,” her redheaded companion shoots back, “a 1985 cult classic starring members of the Brat Pack.” “What?” Cut to an electronics store. “So do we want an LCD or plasma?” a shopper wonders. His son pipes up: “Plasma is an ionized gas.” Cut to a line at an airport check-in counter. A traveler says to his friend: “Next time we gotta find cheaper tickets.” Glassy-eyed, the friend recites: “Cheap skate. Cheap thrills.” Each vignette resumes. Back at the cafe, the blonde insists: “Seriously, we need a new place to eat.” “Eat lead, eat my dust,” the redhead hisses. She pounds the table and shouts: “Man-eating shark!” A passer-by hailing a taxi chimes in: “Wolf spiders eat their young.” “Plasma cutter,” the electronics-store salesman says. “Tetro plasma,” replies the customer’s son. “Blood plasma,” adds a bystander. At the airport, the wide-eyed tourist says “theater tickets,” another man in line says “raffle tickets,” and over the airport’s PA system a check-in agent intones: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise, won’t you pack your bags and leave tonight.” Cuts quicken, and in each location more strangers extend the chains of association. Discrete vignettes dissolve in a shuffle of shots as absurd conversations become indistinct chatter. Silence. “What has search overload done to us?” Microsoft asks against a black screen. Bing, we’re told, is “not just a search engine, it’s the first-ever decision engine.”

The unnamed culprit is Google. Its search engine, to be fair, is not so bad. But as the most commonly used, it is also most commonly associated with the pitfalls of applying Boolean search to a database as irregular as the World Wide Web. Before last year, Google allocated nearly nothing to advertising, because of its founders’ twin faiths in free-market meritocracy and the internet’s viral gravity. But in 2009, Google purchased airtime during the Superbowl for a commercial called “Parisian Love.” The ad tells a sugary boy-meets-girl story entirely in Google searches. The invisible hero enters “study abroad paris” and selects a program from the results. Google corrects the spelling of his query “cafes near the louve” and returns a map. Amid cafe noises, we hear a Frenchwoman say: “tu es tres mignon.” Google translates: “you are very cute.” With the help of searches, the hero of “Parisian Love” finds things to talk about with his new girlfriend, a job in Paris to be near her, a church to marry her in, and instructions on assembling a crib for their child.

Was “Parisian Love” conceived as a riposte to Microsoft’s “Search Overload”? I don’t know, but the polarity of the two is so extreme, it’s funny. The Bing commercial dramatizes web search as an attempt at straightforward communication thwarted by non-sequitur interjections. It smartly exploits popular discomfort with search engines’ departure from natural language—the way Boolean search excises articles and syntax from queries to leave a jumble of decontextualized nouns, vulnerable to multiple interpretations. To great effect, the ad links the fragility of isolated words to the porous social boundaries of the internet. The strangers butting in with useless nonsense are farcical distortions of fears that a foray online might put you in touch with a MySpace predator or a Cragislist killer. The Google commercial romanticizes randomness. For all the quiet reminders of the search engine’s precision—corrections of misspelled phrases (even foreign ones), the return of a flight’s arrival time to a query giving the flight number alone—it is a tale of serendipity and spontaneity. In the Microsoft ad, language is a source of frustration. Ambiguities and proliferous associations harass the speakers. But for Google’s hero, language is the medium by which he contacts his spirit guide. He enters “churches in paris,” then picks Paroisse Saint Leon for his wedding; the telescoping movement from general to particular is like a dream come true.

Bing promises access to goods and services, Google—to life and love. Different as the two ads are, both map desires and anxieties onto language as it is used in a software application. Their success speaks to the search engine’s position in the public imagination: Can you imagine an equally affecting ad for PowerPoint? Neither commercial attempts to explain how the collective experience of the search engine affects individual ones, how the companies collect queries and clicks and use them to plan improvements. Instead, they make you wonder: Can my needs be conveyed in a handful of nouns? Am I feeling lucky?

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