Listen to this story
Reliance on Google as both a reference tool and advertising giant has caused the web economy to revere The Big G in such a way that it has almost become synonymous with the internet itself. This awesome power invested in Google to control information flow is nothing short of divine.
Sheer power simmering within 40-plus data centers encapsulates the very essence of the current techno-philosophical buzz that is big data (not this big data). Each search, message, and document created on a single phone or laptop feeds into an amalgam of information that Google collectively interprets to understand human behavior. It’s not crowdsourcing—it’s culture-sourcing. We’re talking billions of people.
Google has everything it needs to qualify as a religion. Historian Jonathan Smith proposes that “[r]eligion is not a native term,” and he’s right. What Smith means is that religion doesn’t objectively exist like a flower or fountain pen — we decide what it means.
Consider this anthropological example: “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” If you have ever taken sociology or anthropology 101, you’ve read Horace Miner’s brain tickler. It presents an exotic tale of bizarre creatures performing seemingly gruesome activities. What’s it really about? Us. Miner writes as if he’s an outsider observing banal human activities.
Using similar tactics as Miner’s, it is possible for a dispassionate third party to hold base characteristics of religious institutions in one hand and pinch Google by the nape with the other.
ThoughtCo has a handy list of eight characteristics that “may be shared with other belief systems, but taken together they make religion distinct.” Let’s dive in.
Belief in the Supernatural
Most religions have some form of deity, entity, figure, or force that guides believers and endows them with moral code.
If asked to draw a picture of Google, how many would formulate something physical other than perhaps the ubiquitous chromatic logo? While it may literally exist as a series of endless servers akin to Neo’s gun rack, Google exists in a more imaginative sense as what has become colloquially coined as “the cloud.” Nothing says supernatural more than rapidly colliding bits of data that contain records of ongoing and infinite communications, formulae, historical happenings, horny humans, Herculean tales, and futuristic fodder.
Morally, Google cloud users are bound by the company’s policies and enticed to proselytize those who are not of the same label in order to collaborate on documents, interact with media, and communicate.
Sacred vs. Profane
Life is full of dichotomies: up and down, black and white, Republican and Democrat, chocolate and vanilla. Sure, there are such things as middle, gray, centrist (really, though?), and mint. But as problematic as binaries are, they allow us to be decisive and to more easily define and categorize. With religion, sacred entities are protected, revered, and often forbidden. The profane is mundane — like Bing.
The only people who use Bing are those over 60 who purchased a Microsoft computer and couldn’t figure out how or didn’t care enough to swap out their search provider. Some concerned with privacy (bravo!) use the constantly expanding, Pennsylvania-based DuckDuckGo. Everyone else uses Google — and to them, any other service is profane. Yahoo? Pagan. AOL? A cave drawing.
Sacred Ritual Acts
If you bothered to glimpse at Miner’s “Nacirema” piece, you might have considered, even for a brief second, that elements of your daily routine are somewhat ritualistic. Internet time is almost certainly part of that routine. Google’s horizontal dominance has all bases covered when it comes to product reliance. Twenty hard-baked applications (among others) fetter users to its ecosystem and use gathered data as capital to further furnish reliance. In a sense, feeding Google queries goes right alongside the Hindu puja, Christian tithe, and Islamic zakat.
What makes utilizing the G Suite sacred is that the applications are woven into the fabric of Google, adhere to Google’s philosophies, and are an extension of users’ demonstration of loyalty to and trust in the company. Think of Google apps as the 5 Ks of Sihkism — accessories that embody the religion itself.
Religious moral code is just life’s Terms of Service for adherents, is it not? In that case, Google’s code is literally spelled out. As with all persnickety religious code, the majority of followers in any particular system will veer toward a more casual interpretation rather than one that is direct and orthodox. Many claim to be part of a belief system without having so much as glanced at the established text.
Some on the other end of the spectrum take meaning into their own hands. Their renditions tend to be quite extreme (e.g., ISIS). The internet has its own version of extremists in Anonymous and antiestablishment sites like WikiLeaks.
ThoughtCo describes this one as “awe, a sense of mystery, a sense of guilt, and adoration,” which “tend to be aroused in religious believers when they come in the presence of [the] sacred.” Google can evoke all of these feelings, plus some when one appreciates the convenience it provides. A sense of guilt reddens the cheeks after a self-revealing search. Awe slackens the jaw now and then. And there is no shortage of mystery and wonder after reading about Google’s own exploits in AI. With great power comes great re… resources to impress the hell out of people!
Prayer or Communication
Gmail, Hangouts, Google Voice, YouTube comments, Google Docs comments…endless outlets for blabbing. Yes, those are all human-to-human methods of communication—clearly different from prayer. A mere human who wishes to connect with the deity that is Google may attempt to do so through its various, vague channels of customer support — though akin to established religions, to no (discernible) avail!
Just as religious adherents communicate with their supernatural entity via pastor, rabi, imam, etc., The Big G has its own squadron of volunteers on its support forum. But how close are they to Google itself?
Life Based Upon a Worldview
With the attention of voters shifting rapidly toward the Internet and away from traditional sources of information…the potential impact of search engine rankings on voter preferences will inevitably grow over time, as will the influence of people who have the power to control such rankings.
Google can’t show every possible search result to you on the first page. Hell, it can’t even show you a fraction of a percent of the results on the first page. That means whatever you see is curated — a fancy word for controlled. The world of a Google user is constructed around the illusion of choice. Which news pops up after a search for a political candidate, for example, is highly likely to influence a voter’s decision, according to Epstein.
The worldview of a Google user is thus curated by algorithms that present information in a certain fashion — information almost always taken for granted. The more trivial the search, the more likely it is to be taken as the truth.
A Social Group
Christians have Christmas, Jews have Hanukkah, Buddhists have Rohatsu, Muslims have Eid ul Fitr, and Googlites (Googuenots?) have Google I/O. Android mobile devices connect more than 1.4 billion people. Despite its desolate uptake, Google even has its own social network, because why not? (Best not answer that.) Last criterion — check.
Alright, so Google can loosely be considered a religion. “But, Tom, it still sounds preposterous to me! Other religions have been around for thousands of years.” Right you are. And those religions continue to cause a most tumultuous mix of violence, altruism, obedience, frailty, fortitude, and fraternity.
Those that have cropped up in recent history do not have nearly as many followers as those boasting generations of loyalty. Either way, new religious movements are about neither numbers on the census nor the calendar.
Modern religions are reliant upon a perfected feedback loop of user loyalty that ensures proprietary power retention. (Here’s a perfect example.) Google’s broad ecosystem and dominance of both the reference and internet advertising spheres pit its influential potential right up against oligarchies of ages past.
Religion is a spicy subject. I’ve said a lot you may disagree with. Please indulge me with your opinion! Cheers!