If you’ve just traveled here in a time machine from some distant, dystopian future to answer the question of when and where humanity went tragically wrong in the early part of the 21st century, then I suppose I could direct you to nationalism or war or rising oceans, any one of which might explain our imminent ruin.
But let me direct you, instead, to the ad campaign for the newest Google smartphone, which encapsulates all the horrors of our moment and gleefully promises to make them worse.
If you’ve been watching playoff baseball this fall (which I have been doing, despite the absence of my boring-as-a-roll-call Yankees), then you can’t get away from these ads. I’m sure the Google Pixel is a fine Chinese-made device that doesn’t secretly spy on you — I’ve got no issues there. Nor do I have a problem with Google generally. I’ve visited the Silicon Valley headquarters, and it made me wish I could code.
No, it’s the main selling point here that bothers me — that the Pixel’s advanced artificial intelligence tools enable you to creatively edit your photos as never before. If you want to muddy the line between truth and invention in your Instagram feed, this is the phone for you.
In one picture, a dancer makes himself appear larger and higher in the air than he actually is. In another, a group of friends merge different photos to give them each brighter smiles. A couple of skateboarders are shown eliminating an inconvenient picnic table from a shot by drawing a circle around it and making it disappear, as if by magic.
The message here is unmistakable. Don’t be a prisoner to unsatisfying reality. Just make it whatever you want it to be.
Our society continues to struggle with the dawn of a new age of misinformation — deepfakes, digital impostors, foreign bots. But here’s Google, making it not only easy but also glamorous to clandestinely alter the moments of your life and share them with all your friends.
Our politics reels from a crisis of self-certainty, where entire communities believe what they want to believe and disregard any evidence to the contrary. No worries! Here’s Google to help you wall yourself off in a world of conspiracy and make-believe, where the only memories worth keeping are the ones that present the world as you’d like it to be, rather than as it is.
Our children suffer from the cruelty of Darwinian social media, where bullying and exclusion traumatize the less socially adept. Thank heaven for the Pixel phone, which makes it simple to eliminate that irritating photo-bomber before you post. Why whisper meanly about the uncool kid when you can erase her altogether with the swipe of a finger?
I have some questions for the people who made these ads. I get that you have a job to do, and that your job is about making money, but have you been paying even a little attention to what’s happening out there in the culture? Can you even begin to understand why this might be the last thing America needs?
Oh, I know, I sound like the proverbial old guy out on his lawn. After all, you say, this isn’t some government plot to create false narratives; it’s just an attempt to get people to buy a phone. Isn’t the whole point of digital innovation to give people cool new ways to be creative and productive?
Sure. But let’s be clear-eyed about the crisis at hand. We are waging a war right now to defend the very concept of truth from those who would obliterate it. Beset by the growing capability of AI and online disinformation, people are rapidly losing faith in the notion of objective reality. What seems to them unlikely or undesirable becomes, literally, unbelievable.
I’m not just talking about less educated consumers, either. The most truth-resistant people I know are those whose advanced degrees imbue them with the confidence to ignore the countervailing facts.
So it matters how we portray truth. To offer people a phone that edits reality in fun ways is inevitable; I’m not suggesting we try to bottle up the technology like some kind of statist regime.
But to make the explicit selling point of that phone the notion that imperfect truths don’t need to exist anymore — that what’s real is both fungible and subjective — strikes me as reckless. It romanticizes the most destabilizing trend in society and invites us all to revel in it.
Let me say two things to the very smart people at Google. First, thanks for the cool search engine. It really is a remarkable, world-altering achievement.
And second, please rethink your marketing when it comes to the value of reality. Because some of us might like to live in it a bit longer.