“We are all search engines”

Posted on October 10, 2006 under academe, minnesota

The U of M has instituted a huge new $2 million branding campaign that covers 83% of the state, with TV, radio and other media (here‘s a press release). The campaign is called “Driven to Discover” and the tagline is “We are all search engines.”

Here is a timeline of how the ‘search’ campaign works. The U ran TV spots asking regular Minnesotans to ask questions, then found U professors to answer them, and designed it all to look like a websearch. The take-home message is that U researchers are addressing questions that are important to Minnesotans.

The reason for the rebranding is the U’s new strategic plan, which wants to catapult this land-grant school into one of the top three research universities in the world. So far, the plan has reorganized some of the colleges–most notably restructing the fabulous General College, which provided academic support to underprepared students, out of existence–cut programs (my program merged with History of Medicine), and is now trying to get the word out about our great researchers.

Certainly some great research is done at the U, but this weird campaign doesn’t do it justice. The questions are things like “Can dance change the world?” and “What’s with the new writing initiative?” Walking around on campus you find a little search box with a question in it, with a little notation: “Answer in 15 paces.” I like that. Clever. But the answer is only about 100 words long and pretty glib.

I think it confuses search/research in very particular ways. The campaign gives the impression that doing research is as easy as doing a google search on your new boyfriend (and search requires definite non-obvious skills as well), and that all you need to do is click to address problems like race relations, cancer, and war. And the kinds of questions folks asked are not the kinds of questions that most people I know are trying to answer. One of the great things about scholarship is that it gives you space to challenge and question things and ideas that are ‘common knowledge’ elsewhere. It’s important to be accountable to the folks who pay our (laughable) salaries, but this campaign trivializes research.

And I’m not sure what to think about the analogy of people as search engines. Is everybody a search engine, or just the UM researchers who know the answers to these questions? Am I a search engine because I know how to look stuff up in the archives, or know who to ask to find possible answers? I don’t feel like a search engine.

Anyway, enough with the analysis, here‘s a crude parody of the campaign.

This comic also seems relevant (thanks to Hanging Together for the link).