Google, Academia, and the Reactionary Birthday Conspiracy

I want to make it clear that I love birthdays.  It’s a time of good food and good company, and nothing beats that.  But it’s also very personal.  And, while I love my friends’, my family’s, and my own birthdays, I don’t like constantly being asked by academia and the internet to celebrate that of those I don’t know.

In 2009, I came across a CFP celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday that encouraged interdisciplinary approaches from all fields of inquiry.  For a second, I thought, huh, that’d be an interesting paper to write.  I geeked out at the prospect of connecting Darwinian evolution, natural selection, or survival of the fittest with my own field of rhetoric/composition.  Then I started to question what the big deal was with his 200th birthday, became more and more irate, and that sensitivity has stuck with me ever since.  The annoyance came in bits, pieces, waves that grew bigger and bigger, like so: why is birth so important… why not people’s works and achievements… this emphasis on figure over matter… same uneasiness as literary canon… Christian sainthood… canonization of scholars’ names, physical appearance, physical being instead of thought… individual ownership over collective meaning-making… intellectual property… copyright… trademark… explaining to scared and confused international students censured for “plagiarism” of others’ ideas that attribution of the capitalist kind is valued over their dissemination and distribution… it all goes together… it’s a goddamn conspiracy…

This isn’t something new, of course, as we’ve done so with other milestone birthdays of dead popular figures–I’m guilty of having vegged out on an Akira Kurosawa DVD marathon on his 100th, and was first in line for Billie Holliday’s remix tribute album on hers.  Nor is it new in academia for authors and scientists to be celebrated on their birthdays.  I guarantee there’s a Jane Austen cult right now in the basement of some Ivy League building preparing the next official book club selection for her birthday this year.  But I thought this was residual practice during a transitional period to a new digital age.  In the future, we’ll stop this nonsense and celebrate sharing over attribution, achievement over birth.

Google "Doodle" for Brancusi's 135th birthdayBut, Google, instead of bringing balance to the Force has instead perpetuated.  Their sporadic logo changes are fun.  Ooh, it’s a Thanksgiving dinner spelled like Google.  Ooh, the Scooby Gang on Halloween.  Cuuute.  Then, only a few weeks ago, Constantin Brancusi’s birthday was honoured using a bunch of his sculptures, digitally enslaved and forced to look like the Google logo or they would no longer get air time in museums.  Who is Constantin Brancusi, you may ask?  Hell if I know.  But you can bet that, if you don’t know him, if you can only appreciate his works for what they are now, you’re not part of the cultural elite, and are somehow deficient.  Google commands it so.  And it wasn’t even a milestone birthday–it was his 135th.  Who celebrates their 135th birthday if they’re not alive anymore?  Here’s another one of Sayed Darwish–who?–not for the creation of his song that would become the Egyptian national anthem, but for his 119th birthday.

The biggest snub, though, was during academia’s recent celebration of Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday, spread around through emails and interwebs–not his groundbreaking ideas, but when he popped out of his mum.  It’s the ultimate insult to the man’s life and research that gave us “the medium is the message” and predicted the internet.  The point is that the Coming of the child that would help save culture with his name as watermark is more important than ideations that would only contribute to more fluid (rather than Immaculate) Conceptions of culture (or arts, or sciences, or knowledge).  It’s as if we’re recreating the Coming with mini-Comings of mini-saviours, just to hold us off until the Second, when true biology and spirituality return to smite the Digital Devil run amok.

We’re afraid that the same ideas that bore artificial intelligence that would one day enslave us, if not outright eradicate us, must be kept at bay.  More births.  More celebrations of births.  This will ensure that the James Cameron Terminator nightmare prophecy doesn’t realize.  Instead of dangerous ideas, we cling on to the biological imperative, which is in league with Christian spiritual and capitalist labour motives.  And at the heart of all this, academia and the internet–two apparatuses that could have collaborated critically as the last frontier and perhaps as our last chance of dismantling nonconsensual Marxist power structures–instead acquiesce so easily to the anxiety of humanity’s impending doom that they’ve sold out our future for more of the same.


5 comments on “Google, Academia, and the Reactionary Birthday Conspiracy

  1. Interesting to think of celebrating a public figure’s birthday as an insult. The imagery you use to describe how the procreative urge is used to hold the entropy of death and doom at bay was quite provocative as well. I can’t help but wonder if in many of these cases it’s just a matter of pragmatics. When you concentrate on specific events or accomplishments, you get into the issue of deciding which ones to give primacy to. I’ve always read the celebration of some personage’s birthday as a shorthand for celebrating the breadth of that person’s accomplishments. Certainly in the case of Darwin or Einstein or Marie Curie one could argue for specific events, but in the case of Marshall McLuhan, who has a large body of work, I’d think what I might want to memorialize might be different than what you’d pick.

    However, let’s look at Brancusi since I remember looking at Google that day and it reminded me of the first time I say one of his pieces (“Bird in Flight,” the one second from the right) and how magical that piece seemed to me at the time. It was in an art history class at Santa Rosa Junior College back in the nineties, one of my general ed classes, and it was one of the slides the instructor put up. I remember thinking it was one of the most dynamic looking objects I’d ever seen; regardless of its static state, I thought it captured the essence of movement. And because of seeing it that one time, and the effect it had on me, I remembered who Brancusi was. Couldn’t Google’s endeavour of placing such things on their search page have similar effects on other people? Couldn’t someone who’s never seen Brancusi’s work before be motivated by the chance exposure to it to enlarge their world a fraction, to learn a little something about modern art and sculptors of that period? That might be their intent. Of course since I knew who Brancusi was, maybe I just react this way because, on some unconscious level, I feel myself as being validated for being “on the inside” of the issue. Still, if my cultural elitism was afforded me by a community college, then maybe it’s a somewhat proletarian elitism.

    But as you say, celebrating someone’s birthday can allow us to elide that person’s accomplishments, avoid digging into and understanding the ideas behind the person’s cultural status. How often does one think of MLK’s ideas on his birthday? For that matter, what does a mattress sale have to with veterans? I think at some level it’s easier to just take the day off than to dig deeper and think about the significance of what someone has done.

    • Hi, Jason! (Carrick?)

      I had thought about the pragmatic angle, and if I eventually write this into a full-on paper, would probably use that as a conventional counter-argument element. Just as you’re suggesting at the end there, the distraction vs. positive exposure can be slippery, and I guess I have less faith in humanity pulling itself away from tweets and status updates to delve deeper into its curiosities. It does, of course, depend on the individual.

      P.S. I went to SRJC too!! I felt lucky that the Sonoma wine families were donating enough money to the community college for us to have our own cinema, planetarium, and help expose us to things like Bird in Flight. I’m partial to “mummy-looking thing all wrapped up” (third from right) myself.

      • SRJC alumni? Awesome! It was a while back when I went but you’re right about the funding; it makes such a difference.

        Well, I think your concern about people not being curious is well founded, and there’s reason to question whether the effect of something like what Google does raises awareness or just co-ops cultural cachet for Google.

  2. Al, I thought your post raised interesting points about documenting one’s life and the role that new media plays in how, when and for how long the world can access what one has done. I think you articulated well the bittersweet moment of awe when one discovers a new inspiration even if through a media that is contrary to the spirit of individual expression. I did not know of Brancusi and his sculptures until reading your post and am grateful for the exposure regardless of if it was through your blog post about his Google dedication, through an art history class, from an art book, in a museum, or chancing upon his grave in Montparnasse Cemetery. This issue could make for an interesting lesson plan for students, to help them think critically about the holidays that a capitalist society makes them celebrate.

  3. I never thought much about the birthday thing, but I am a little freaked out whenever google remakes their logo “in honour” of whoever. it seems like less of an honor being done the person, and more of a way for google to try and co-opt some of whom-ever’s cultural residue…cause otherwise, google is just a box that you type in and get the links from. a super pragmatic, yet vapid tool. google is building it’s pseudo-personality by co-opting these popular-imagination personalities, personalities that are not alive enough of their own accord to be able to complain that they are being tethered to google in the popular imagination, like it or not. one more reason to shun fame and fortune. good thing i’m a lowly writing instructor.

    oh, and this here video ( mentions the importance of birthdates in our education system…

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