Blog Topic 5: Google, scary?

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2010 at 11:46 pm


When I moved back to New York after college, I suddenly found that I had far more friends than I realized. People with whom I hadn’t had conversations with since freshman year suddenly decided to contact me a month before making a trip to the city, casually inquiring as to whether or not I had a couch or, at the very least, an air mattress that they might “borrow” (in much the same way as someone borrows a sheet of paper — you know that train isn’t coming back to the station).

Except in cases in which I literally didn’t know the people, I was pretty amenable to having houseguests, even those of a fair-weathered variety. I was working for peanuts at the Historical Society, and knew all too well what a limited budget looked like. Besides, it was nice to reconnect with people.

In April, I received a request from a legitimate friend to come and stay with me. Though we had fallen out of touch, we had been very close as kids, and I was excited that she wanted to come and stay with me, as she had relocated to the south and wasn’t in New York often. It was the first time that my visitor didn’t fall into one of the typically clear-cut categories: people I knew I wouldn’t hear from again after their visit, and people who knew everything about me and/or shared my blood type. This was different. This was someone who had known everything about me when I was seven, and knew next to nothing about me at 22.

I prepared for my friend’s arrival (let’s call her Heather for the sake of brevity) the same way I prepared for any houseguest: I brought the vacuum cleaner out of its early retirement and shoved all books that wouldn’t fit onto the shelves into the oven (What? Carrie Bradshaw kept sweaters in hers!). In other words, I immaculated the environs.

But before Heather climbed off the subway at 72nd Street, I thought of something I hadn’t considered with previous guests. My computer. I was going to be working while Heather was visiting, and never brought my laptop to work. This had never been a consideration before. I don’t troll Satanist websites or have files of dwarf wrestling or anything incriminating on my computer. But the thought of leaving something so personal out in plain view and even inviting its use gave me pause. Here was someone I hadn’t really connected with since out fourth grade field trip to NASA space camp. Did I really want to leave a record of my entire post-Tamagotchi-era life on my desk? After all, I had no clue if Heather had developed nosy habits over time. For all I knew, she could have been Valerie Plame’s replacement.

Why do I relate this story? Because for two days, I ended up bringing my laptop to work with me. Not because I didn’t want Heather to find out that I had a Word file called “StuffWillFarrellSaid.doc” or because I was afraid she’d glean and steal my idea for a company designed solely to execute flash mobs around a variety of themes (1960s-1980s flash mobs = Flash Backs!) based on my Goole search history. I couldn’t care less if she knew this stuff. In fact, I hoped we’d re-connect enough over the course of her visit to delve into our respective quirks. But I wanted to tell her these things, have conversations. It was kind of akin to how it bothers me when people form impressions of others based on their Facebook pages prior to even meeting them. I mean, by all means, if you post it, I guess it’s your problem if you’re judged for it. But still. The idea rubs me the wrong way.

At first, the question, “Should we fear Google?” didn’t inspire much passion in me one way or another. I was borderline apathetic about it. Even as I read John Battelle’s book and applied my traditional scribbles over the pages, I was unsure how I felt. And I relate the Heather story because it helped me frame the question and decide my position.

I don’t fear Google. To me, it’s akin to fearing Shrek. I mean, have you seen this logo? They can’t even be scary when they’re trying to be!

That being said, much unlike the psycho-profile of engineers that Battelle discussed, I know I trust others too implicitly. But half of this trust is based not on my inherent optimism at the impeccable morality of mankind, but on myself. I haven’t ever chosen to reveal anything online that I would care if my mother saw. Maybe this sounds borderline sanctimonious – I hope not. I just haven’t. Maybe I’m not interesting enough. The most incriminating thing that you’ll discover about me if you dredge into the black hole of Google is an article in which I almost praised the Red Sox. And therefore, I feel no reason to fear Google. Yes, someone can find the geographical coordinates of my house using WhitePages.com, and yes, they can see what it looks like if they are feeling particularly stalker-ish. Yes, my credit card information is traveling through the mysterious ether of cyberspace when I decide I need those squirrel-shaped salt and pepper shakers from PotteryBarn.com. And yes, I should probably be more concerned, or at the very least, cautious about these things. But I don’t feel at all worried by them.

Why? Because I feel that the long tail, in a crazy way, protects me from the very medium that gave birth to it (for the purposes of this particular discussion, Google). If my credit card information is misused when completing my Pottery Barn purchase, I trust that both Chase Manhattan and Pottery Barn will fear the stigma of a tarnished reputation and long tail-executed backlash too much to ignore my problem. I trust they will deal with it accordingly. I trust that, in the end, the odds of something irrevocably catastrophic happening as a result of my regular employment of a search engine is quite remote. Especially if I, as a relatively evolved mammal, exercise common sense when using it.

No, the thing that scares me isn’t Google. The thing that scares me is that the majority of internet users may one day come to agree with Battelle’s extreme portrayal of Google. I found Battelle’s book fascinating, especially since the author came from a social anthropology background (something I can relate to with far more ease than I can the tech backgrounds of the previous authors we have read for class). The irony, though, is that I thought there were far more basic human truths in the other two books (The Long Tail and Here Comes Everybody) than in The Search, despite the author’s sociological background.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the book – I found Battelle’s explorations of the Google marketing, hiring, and business schemes very interesting. But I couldn’t quite move past the annoyance I felt when reading chapters one and two. A random selection of things that stuck in my craw…

On page 17, Battelle implies that Google is the Force that can unlock the answer to the question, “What does the world want?” (Last time I checked, the world wasn’t a unilateral being with one set of tastes.)

On page 13, Battelle writes, “Search is frought with nearly paralyzing social responsibility.” (So is investment banking, and look how that turned out…)

On page 10, he says that via Google, we have “taken our once ephemeral and quotidian lives and made these actions eternal.” (I’m pretty sure the bite of bagel I just ate is going to forever remain ephemeral and quotidian.)

On page 9, he implies that Google is the force most likely to make The Matrix real. (If so, I choose the blue pill.).

On page 6, he claims that search is the aggregate thoughtstream of humankind. (I guess this means the thought stream of humankind doesn’t include much of Africa and South America).

On page 3, he claims that Google is holding our culture by its thoughts. (I never imagined Google as Clyde Barrow until this sentence.)

Page 4 details how his Mac is a more important anthropological artifact than Hadrian’s Wall or the ruins Pompeii. (I watch enough Bones to know that’s not true.)

First of all, to that last one, WHAT? And as for the rest, WHAT?!?! If I felt that he were not completely serious about some of these statements, I might cut him some slack, and even agree with him for the sake of argument. But as I read, I felt like he was in a committed relationship not with the three children and wife mentioned on the inside flap, but with GOOGLE.

I get his points. Google is a fascinating reflection of (SOME PEOPLE’S) thoughts and interests on a (NON-PERPETUAL and NON-ALL-INCLUSIVE) regular basis. It reflects the rise and fall of (SOME PEOPLE’S) tastes and interests. It is a fascinating conduit for (A CROSS-SECTION OF) consumerism. And perhaps all of this should have me shaking in my boots. But it doesn’t. Mostly because I think that if everyone in the world were given a laptop and Google homepage and used the search engine five hours a day every single day of their life, the percentage of innermost human thought and feeling captured in its caches would still be minimal. Because if words are not even enough to adequately describe and make tangible the human condition, how can GOOGLE?

I won’t have nightmares about Google hiding under my bed. But I do fear waking up one day and finding that the general population has decided, like Battelle, that Google is our brain made visible. I do fear that the two-to-three word Google query will become the standard in offline verbal communication. I do fear that along with a NYC subway map and directions to Magnolia Bakery, Heather will one day feel that Googling me is an adequate substitute for asking me about my life, and vice versa.

I can eat a bucket of popcorn in a dark movie theater while Charlie Chaplin waddles into a sunset. I can go home, pull up Google Chrome, log onto my blog, and write about the taste of that popcorn and the crackle of those old film reels. I can tag the post, and it may appear on Google. Someone may find that post in a search, read about my popcorn and Charlie Chaplin, and decide to replicate my experience. They might go to the theater, buy the popcorn, and sit in the exact seat I did. But they won’t have the same experience, and they will find that what they found in their search, what they read on my blog, can’t really describe what they feel in that seat.

I agree with Battelle about one thing. What is the point of the internet if you can’t find anything? Google has made the internet useful. It helps me find things. But it doesn’t tell me what I’ll feel and experience when I do.

And that is why I am not scared of Google. Steal my credit card information if you want, hack into my Facebook. Whatever. You can’t take anything from me via Google that I find of eminent value, anyway.

And now, I’ll leave you with something that has nothing to do with anything but the picture at the top of the page:

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