April 13, 2010
 

Kurt Brokaw: MY LAST GOOGLE

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By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

The photo above shows the outer wall of my crypt in a cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin. The picture quality isn't good and I didn't take it. I certainly didn't ask for it to be taken. And I surely didn't expect it to pop up on a "Kurt Brokaw" Google page. But in an age of collective digital intelligence, as you and I are learning, sometimes much to our amazement and displeasure, what we find online isn't always what we expect.

The back-story is brief. When my mother passed away some years ago, following my dad's death and burial in the same Wisconsin cemetery, I made the decision to plan and pre-pay my own funeral arrangements and final resting place. There was one single-body crypt available in the top tier of a small mausoleum close to my parents' plot. I liked the location--after all, when you've lived in Manhattan most of your life, as the realtors say, it's location, location, location. Because the Wisconsin cemetery is maintained by the city of Madison, monies spent are invested and earn interest. And so like the Mad Ave adman I've always been, ever planning for one disaster after another, I figured this is a turnkey operation for my family, as well as a safe, private investment.

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Thus you can imagine my astonishment last month, when I'm scrolling through the Google links into my life and times--various MAJ reviews and articles, info on a Dracula book published over 30 years ago, snippets of New School student blogs that occasionally creep onto my pages, schedules of other courses past and present, and suddenly--TOMBSTONE OF KURT BROKAW--pops on. Omigod, anybody sighting this is going to assume I've died, even though the year of death is still waiting for a stonecutter to finish.

I've dug into this and discovered that every gravestone and marker in this Midwestern cemetery has been photographed and archived, probably by some county authority that maintains the cemetery. It's not an exploitive or opportunistic action. But it's a piece of data that leaves a digital trail, a tiny "tail" if you will, that raises a certain privacy issue that seems to go beyond the usual reality mining.

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Granted we live in an era of data encryption, speech recognition, default options, and the behavioral mindset that in the global village, everyone knows as much about everyone else as people in tribes thousands of years ago knew about their neighbors. In our social and business networks, one can choose to give away far more of one's private self than usually turns up on Google. But it's still our choice. The problem with Google is that it can blindside us. Carried to its ultimate extreme, it can suggest we're dead or maybe have one foot in the grave. Imagine--while we're still marching along among the living, we can view our last Google.

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Advertisers who mine Google data can have a field day with my tombstone news. In the survey course "All About Advertising" that I've taught at the New School for 22 years (it'll start up again in June); we cover dozens of specific appeals used by marketers, and deconstruct a number of ads that play on mortality themes. Cunard headlines and subheads its cruise ship ads "Life Is Short" and "You Only Live Once." Bermuda tourism beckons vacationers with "You Only Live Once But If You Live Right, Once Is Enough." Mercedes-Benz pictures its car in noirish lighting with the tiny line "Don't Die Wondering." Insurance giants routinely warn executives and their families of the giant hole they'll leave in their companies (not to mention their homes) if one day they aren't there. And when you get into nitty-gritty public service campaigns like Partnership For A Drug-Free America and the Montana Meth Project, you find death hovering near most messages.

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In Apple's "1984" teaser spot for Macintosh, run once on the '84 Superbowl and still regarded by thousands of copywriters and art directors worldwide as the commercial to beat, the giant figure up on the screen is droning on from George Orwell's 1949 novel about "a garden of pure ideology" and "information purification directives." Big Brother tells us our unification of thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on earth. The voice concludes that "our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion." Apple was the first marketer of the internet era to build ROI based on R.I.P. Scores of agency strategy briefs now do it routinely. The healthy thing here is to view that tombstone up on Google as merely the latest iteration. I'm guessing it'll stay up until the day I die, and then vanish.

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