Gaga for Google

The Internship: a study in the psychology of mass digital conformity.

Chris Lehmann

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson yuk it up as interns at an info-cartel you may have heard of (Fox Searchlight).

Polls show a solid majority of Americans continue to support the ritual sacrifice of their personal call data on the altar of our never-ending war with Oceania — er, excuse me, terrorism — even after sordid revelations brought to light by whistleblower Edward J. Snowden.

Google has spent none of the company’s multimillion-dollar lobbying budget to try to get Congress to overhaul any offending provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

There’s something fatalistic about this bedrock support for the new police state. Could it be less a show of stubborn loyalty to federal spookery than a sort of learned helplessness, bred in the fingertips of an American public long used to marketers hovering over their Facebook and Google accounts, tracking — and then desperately seeking to monetize — every keystroke they make?

Summer moviegoers had a proof-text for this hunch. In The Internship, a Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson buddy comedy, the Wedding Crashers duo play laid-off, middle-aged salesmen driven into a tour of duty as aspiring geeks at the grand, rainbow-hued Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. Hijinks ensue, as they try to adapt their old-dude people skills to the cool and clean rigors of profitable data transmission. Their younger colleagues are won over by their seedy charm, and our heroes see their pluck rewarded with jobs at the world’s coolest company.

But what’s of real interest is the social background of the film. The Internship is an unrelieved study in the psychology of mass digital conformity — rendered far more insidious, of course, in the Google workplace’s absolute conviction that it detests all manner of conformity.

Needless to say, product placement abounds in the chipper, faux-creative Google workplace, with the search giant’s whole suite of data-mining online services trotted out and celebrated in adoring detail. And to remind viewers of the sheer sunny hipness of it all, we see young Googlers confidently bopping through every phase of their workdays: enthusiastically showing up for code meetings, power napping in high-tech pods and awakening, refreshed, to spout motivational slogans from Malcolm Gladwell.

The battalion of summer interns, bewitched by it all, are bent on mimicking every facet of the company’s creepy workplace ethos. For all the movie’s feverish paeans to new-media creativity,” it never occurs to anyone — least of all our plucky, rule-breaking protagonists — to ask whether extending the brand-domination of a global info-cartel amounts to a worthy aim in life. As The Internship grinds on to its duly appointed uplifting finale (in which the winning intern team members are literally dancing for joy at the promise of — hurrah! — a full-time job in this workaholic hellscape), you half-expect the relentlessly youthful, well-scrubbed and code-happy Google workforce to break out into a chorus of Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Back in the world of total government surveillance, Google was trying to pull off its own set of beguiling dance moves. The Snowden leaks made it clear that Google has been handing over user data to the NSA since 2009 — making the firm’s glib Don’t Be Evil” credo come off as a bitter joke. However, the company’s tactical bid to create more openness” around the NSA scandal — via an open letter requesting clearance to publicize the warrants empowering the surveillance program — proved no less disingenuous than its initial denials. Under law, Google needs Attorney General Eric Holder’s authority to release the details of the surveillance program— and cynically understands that such a request will never be granted. Worse, as Valleywag’s Sam Biddle has noted, Google has spent none of the company’s multimillion-dollar lobbying budget to try to get Congress to overhaul any offending provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the legislation that governs the operation of the shadow surveillance state. Other bad actors in this saga, such as AT&T, Microsoft and Verizon, have all managed to seek modifications to FISA — but neither Google nor Facebook, the biggest players in online commerce, has bothered to do so.

But then, who wants to believe that a joyful, offbeat campus thronging with such quirky and lovable geeks is but the rainbow-colored façade of an authoritarian info-state? Better, by far, to lie back and think of Owen Wilson.

Chris Lehmann, is editor-in-chief at The Baffler and a former managing editor of In These Times. He is the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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