Google and (the) Alphabet

Almost as soon as Google announced that it was becoming Alphabet, the internet exploded with thinkpieces about the entity’s new name. Lowen Liu on Slate titled his piece: “Alphabet Is the Worst Name the New Google Could Have Called Itself.” Why? Because, as Liu writes, the name Alphabet “is banal to a menacing degree, a play for universality that ends up meaning nothing at all.”

alphabet logo
Alphabet’s Logo

In one sense, Liu is right. What could be more banal — and worse, conventional — than the alphabet? For most Americans, the Roman alphabet is an initiation into our culture’s most familiar patterns. We sing the alphabet. We read The ABC Bunny and Dr. Seuss’s ABC, and, if we’re lucky, The Gashlycrumb Tinies. We learn the letters in the right order so that we can write and communicate, just like everyone else. So that we can become grown-ups. The alphabetic sequence is a symbol for knowledge and sense, and it offers us an encyclopedic and linear way of thinking about and representing the world. The alphabet is order and convention and totality. It’s foundational. The alphabet, dare we say, is basic.

This is Liu’s complaint, at least.

Google (and now Alphabet) founder Larry Page draws on the conventional aspect of the alphabet in his press release about Google’s new parent entity. He declares: “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search.” For Page, the alphabet is both a symbol and tool of language and knowledge. In this sense, Page’s remarks recall Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement that the phonetic alphabet is “the technology that has been the means of creating civilized man.”

The alphabet is the technology that created civilization; now Alphabet is the company that creates technology. (Or so Page says).

But there is a whole other way of thinking about the alphabet that both Liu and McLuhan have bypassed. If the alphabet is a symbol of convention, order, and knowledge, it is just as much a symbol of the complete opposite. The alphabet has a deviant side. The alphabetic sequence is a string of twenty-six arbitrary letters, and these letters mean nothing on their own. “A” doesn’t mean anything, nor does “B,” nor does “C.”. The letters of the alphabet are signifiers without signifieds. They are nonsense. They mean nothing.

This is the lesson that Big Bird learns in a classic sketch from Sesame Street’s first season. Big Bird tells his friend Susan that he’s come across a word that troubles him. He points to a banner in the yard that features the alphabetic sequence, and tells Susan that “I can hardly say it, and I sure don’t know what it means.” He then goes on to sing a song in which he pronounces the letters of the alphabet phonetically; who can forget his delightful “ab-ca-def-gi-jeckle-mi-nop-kwer-stoov-wix-iz?” After he finishes his song, Susan corrects Big Bird with a kind laugh, and explains that the “word” that puzzles Big Bird is not a word, but the alphabet itself. She then reads out the alphabet and pronounces each letter distinctly, and describes the alphabet as “a list of all the letters that make words.” Alone, the letters mean nothing. Together, they are the toolbox for everything. The alphabet may signify order, convention, and sense, but it is just as potent a symbol and technology of nonsense, arbitrariness, and (children’s) play.

A similar paradoxical tension emerges from Larry Page’s press release. He announces Google’s plans to innovate—by creating Alphabet—by referring to the founding documents of Google. He begins: “As Sergey and I wrote in the original founders letter 11 years ago, ‘Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.’” Page declares Google’s commitment to innovation by defying conventionality, yet he begins his announcement of a new corporate structure by making an allegiance to Google’s own brand of non-conventional conventionality. In other words, he claims: we are doing what we’ve always done—we are following our own conventions—by being unconventional. For Page, Alphabet, like the alphabet, walks a paradoxical line between convention and innovation, history and possibility, sense and nonsense.

Even more telling is the restructuring of Google as a subsidiary of Alphabet; Alphabet is now an umbrella entity that houses Google along with other corporate entities. In Alphabet’s alphabet, G is for Google, and the other letters of the alphabet are for its other subsidiaries: C is for Calico, N is for Nest, and so on. Under the umbrella of the rhetorical alphabet, Alphabet can now accommodate its core moneymaking businesses and its “moonshot” enterprises in a modular structure that allows for both convention and experimentation. In Alphabet, there is now room for Google (search, maps, gmail) and Google X (self-driving cars, drone delivery services, Internet-connected balloons). The once unconventional is now conventional, and the totalizing Alphabet has (rhetorical) room for it all.

The creation of Alphabet as a parent company for Google is about business—Page makes the point that Alphabet is an “alpha-bet” (or an “investment on return above benchmark” bet)—but it is also about rhetoric. The alphabet is a structure of contradictions, a vehicle of conventionality and deviance, of meaning and of nonsense, of stability and chaos. Whether you like the direction that Google is heading in or not, Alphabet is a fitting parent for Google—no longer a young tech whippersnapper—in its sixteenth year. And that’s why Liu and other critics are wrong about this new name: “Alphabet” is all-too-apt a name for Google’s new mom. And, much like its namesake, Alphabet promises to be omnipresent, and threatens to be inescapable.

 

Jacquelyn Ardam has a PhD in alphabet books and teaches English at UCLA.

She tweets @jaxwendy.