Google scrambled some Easter eggs yesterday. Or, more precisely, it didn’t. It would be silly and counterproductive to exaggerate Google’s eye-poke at Christians, but it would be a mistake not to consider its meanings, too.
On Christianity’s holiest day, Easter Sunday, the Web’s hyper-dominant site’s commemorative screen was an earnestly winsome portrait of American labor organizer, Caesar Chavez. Sure, no Christian was mocked, defamed, arrested, or persecuted. And heaven forbid any believer needs internet graphics to help bolster their faith.
But hundreds of millions of Christians received the clearly intended message that Google doesn’t deign to wish them well on their sacred day. It would rather honor a liberal labor icon.
What does the evocative snub convey, ultimately? Well, several things about American culture, about Google and the information age, and the uncertain perch of traditional values and groups in modern society.
First, the screen that perhaps more Americans saw than any other yesterday reminds us that not just the state is aggressively secular. The most powerful media and information companies that pervade and shape our culture are as well. One of the biggest information companies in the world happily delivered a smug tweak rather than a friendly wave.
One interesting note here is that as people spend more time and more life in the online world, the traditional public square is being supplanted by the cyber square. The Supreme Court has chased religion from the public square, and now global corporations may sanitize it from the cyber square.
Constitutionally, private publishers like websites don’t face First Amendment “public forum” scrutiny that governments do. They can celebrate any, all, or no significant religious occasions. Newspapers historically have noted and cheered a variety of days important to their readers. In that regard, Google has a vast array of special screens for special days. The fact that Easter—or reportedly other diverse religious holidays—aren’t among the offerings seems to reflect a decision by Google more than a lack of interest by Google’s users.
With the public square now largely stripped of religious references, the same trend in the private cyber square has cultural consequences. While it doesn’t deprive believers of their right to assemble, the “authorities” of yet another forum of human interaction withdrawing ceremonial acknowledgement is another increment in the long march to marginalize faith in America. As the scene increasingly appears to uncommitted observers, no one even talks about faith, do they?
Google’s decision also reminds us of the company’s total--if perhaps temporary—dominance. They knew the screen would irritate lots of people. There would be grumblings and buzz. Google didn’t care because the web’s dominant presence felt no risk
It's simply not viable for displeased consumers to shun Google. Social networks like Facebook buzzed with disgruntled urgings to switch to this search vehicle or that. But, apart from the certainty that most switchers would backstop unsatisfactory search results with a quick Google check, Google is a lot more then web searches. It’s far easier to do the odd search on Bing than to go full G-vegan by deactivating Gmail accounts, Google+, etc.
We see Google can tweak the largest religious demographic in the US unafraid, because it knows there’s nowhere else for web users to go. That’s interesting and important. Though, it’s also important to remember dominance is never permanent. That’s a lesson AT&T, General Motors, IBM, and Microsoft have learned. But top dog status has its impact in its day.
Google’s action also presents the challenging social question how beliefs, creeds, and the groups that embrace them can remain vibrant in a culture that suppresses all public recognition. In earlier days, town squares and communities reinforced the messages of favored local faiths. Since the 60’s when that was deemed unconstitutional, religion and faith communities have reached for other media and means to connect and invite people to join in common spiritual cause.
While the interpersonal world remains free, the communal world is becoming decidedly less so. If the most frequent private gathering places, like Google, Yahoo, et. al., disparage religiosity, then the turf where believers feel welcome and free to express themselves shrinks inexorably toward their private places of exchange: the chapel, the synagogue, or electronic networks of co-religionists. It’s akin to the Obama administration’s position on mandating contraception: “Say whatever you want in church on Sunday, but out here with the rest of us, you will conform.”
It’s not suppression per se, just the atmospheric expectation that believers will take it somewhere private, sort of like designated smoking areas.
We’ve known since at least 2008 that’s the attitude of our government. It’s becoming clearer that’s also the world view of our corporate information portals. What’s left of the public forum is becoming an important question.