The best parodies are those that deliver a message along with a laugh. This one was real enough that some might have missed the joke.
Last Wednesday, a group of German activists and culture jammers from a group called Peng Collective unveiled a site called Google Nest at the Re:public tech conference in Berlin. While posing as Google reps named Gloria Spindle and Paul von Ribbeck (conference organizers were in on the ruse), Peng members Faith Bosworth and her colleague Jean Peters presented a line of new products seemingly born out of Google's recent acquisition of Nest, the makers of smart household products like thermostats and smoke detectors. The products, while quietly alarming, weren’t entirely inconceivable:
Google Trust: an insurance policy that ensures Google will reimburse you should your data be compromised (and they can’t promise it won’t).
Google Hug: a tool that knows where you are at all times, and tracks your emotions based on your behavior. If you need a hug, Google Hug will help you find others in your vicinity to interact with.
Google Bee: your own personal drone.
Google Bye: an online post-mortem memorial formed from your data, including the most poignant quotes from your emails.
From the primary colors to the typeface, the page has all the hallmarks of a Google product (art director Hannes Böttger studied Google’s style to make a perfect replica). The resemblance is so close that, despite the absurdity of the products being offered, it's hard to tell if the whole enterprise was real or fake. The products paved the way for a Google-run, dystopian future, and that was the point.
“Our thinking behind it was to look at what’s already happening and then turn up the creepy factor an inch,” Bosworth tells us. “We wanted to make it believable, but kind of make people feel a little bit uncomfortable at the same time.”
It worked. Peters says the group has had people emailing to inquire about how to actually get access to the fake features. It’s so real, Google has asked that the site be taken down (it even offered to pay $100 for the site!), to which Bosworth and Peters responded with a continuation of the farce, submitting a heartfelt “resignation” of their alter-egos from Google.
The stunt comes at a time when our collective trust in big data is wavering. “I think this is one of those things that people are really happy to get behind because it’s something they’ve been questioning and they want to say something but no one has really come out strongly yet,” Bosworth says. The project got some help from three large German political parties and several NGOs who agreed to put out fake press releases denouncing Google Nest products. And designers from an agency called Wigwam volunteered to put the site together for free. "It was all people saying, 'Hey we’re happy to help for free because we love what you do," Peters says.
The Peng Collective sees farce as a powerful mechanism for getting people engaged in a topic that at times can seem daunting in its complexity. “Activism needs to be a bit more accessible and popular because it’s become quite entrenched with NGO work,” says Bosworth. “Online, people are not really engaging. They’re just clicking on petitions and this is kind of away to make it bit more fun and interesting and engaging.”
She says the group is still deciding whether or not to take the site down, but they’ve called for fans to help keep Google Nest alive. She hopes the Google Nest stunt encourages people to question monopolies. “When it comes specifically to the data question, we may need to be thinking about this system that is becoming a norm now where we just exchange our data for free services,” she says.