Getting Google’s Approval

Pornography is abundant. For most of the Western world, it has never been easier to access explicit material to satisfy almost any desire. From an era in which (generally male) adolescents got their titillation from stolen glances of page 3 or Channel 5’s humble offerings of softcore erotica, there is Wi-Fi and with it, instant access to an immense range of entirely free pornography.              

To find their pornography many, if not most, will rely on their trusty (and when necessary, discrete) search engine: Google. The user types in whatever they are into, one click and Google will whisk them away. Before the click however, during the act of keying in the desired material, an interesting thing occurs. Or rather, doesn’t. 

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When you begin to type a word such as porn, in place of the usual autocomplete and drop-down bar full of suggestions, the search engine offers only blankness. After the click the searcher will of course be presented with their material and Google will perform its standard duties of sifting, ranking and compiling the information into an easy-to-navigate list. Before, however, Google keeps its usually loquacious mouth shut and will do so even while "Incognito mode" is active. 

Put plainly, Google will help satisfy sexual desires, but it won’t acknowledge that it is doing so. It will assist access to almost any explicit material wanted and organise it in the same way it would DVDs or fishing equipment, but it will feign complete ignorance until the moment the searcher confirms their desires. Like the clichéd cop uttering “Nothing to see here, folks”, this conspicuous nothing marks a something, the absence marks a presence.

Derrida’s notion of the trace emphasises the absences which make the sign’s apparent presence possible. All language, according to Derrida, depends upon and contains traces of what it is not for its signification. The “full-presence” or “pure-presence” of signs is thus an illusion, albeit a helpful one that allows us to put language to use and avoid endless searches for meanings that are constantly “deferred”. In the case of Google however, the self-imposed absence is so glaring that it screams out confirmation of the presence it refuses to acknowledge. 

Is there not also something pornographic in the logic of this omission? In the hackneyed, yet nonetheless widely reproduced porn setup a teacher, nurse or maid will enter the scene. Uniformed in a simulacrum of their apparent employment, they will proceed to perform the duties of their role – a bit of ineffective dusting or threatening classroom discipline – and create a display of bad faith that would make Sartre nauseous. These actions will be extremely provocative but performed in all apparent innocence. That is, until the moment of instigation or confirmation, when all pretences and continuities of character are thrown off as easily as the maid’s “regulation” pinafore. This tried-and-true pornographic formula and Google’s policy of omission thus essentially partake in the same logic: Yes, I will enable your desires but I will not acknowledge initially that I am doing so. 

What emerges from this analysis? Only that Google is attempting to have its cake and eat it, but doing a very poor job. With the intention of adding a veneer of decency, the corporate powerhouse feigns ignorance toward one of its most utilised services and in doing so, reproduces the logic of the thing it barely manages to censor. This is less of a campaign to get Google to drop their self-enforced silence and more of an attempt to point out the ridiculousness of trying to hide erections behind fig-leafs.

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