Wednesday 16 October 2019

Google shows who we really are -- and it's not pretty

Philip Hensher

Who, as the High Court judge in the anecdote might say, is Miss Kim Kardashian? Well, this is not one of those columns where someone tries to prove their superiority by not knowing who the stars of popular culture are. She was on the telly in a documentary about her family. She has a number of sisters, one called, unforgettably, Khloe. I wouldn't swear to be able to recognise her. But that hardly matters. Because these days, you can Google her.

Google made the shortest proprietary-name-to-verb journey in history. It took 12 years from the registering of the Hoover in 1927 before someone said in print, "I was Hoovering my passage" and a little longer before it lost the proprietary capital letter. Google was launched in September 1998, and by October 1999, someone was writing, intransitively, "Has anyone Googled?" on a message board. Three months later, in January 2000, it had lost its capital letter.

"To google" is not quite to research, or to find something out: it is more like "to find", or "to be reminded", or something of that sort. The claim that it is at the centre of our knowledge, our communal memory, and our interests is made by the company itself. It releases, every year, a list of the most popular topics searched for by its users in every country.

So who are we interested in? Nicki Minaj, Darren Criss, Ed Sheeran, Rebecca Black, Megan Fox, Jessica Jane, Randy Savage. Do we want to improve our lives? We asked Google how to revise, snog, reference, wallpaper, draw, sleep, and flirt.

It's worth remembering that these searches obviously exclude anything relating to pornography or sex. Probably the real list of the most popular Google searches runs "tits, topless, giant knockers, Nicki Minaj, bosoms, Ricky Gervais". The collective unconscious, as envisaged by Jung and registered a century later by Google, must be even more asinine than Google wants us to believe.

We've been handed an information resource beyond the wildest imagination of any previous generation. Do we know what to do with it? Look on the list of searches, and despair.

Faced with this depressing insight into our collective curiosity, I must say that I care a good deal less about the figures about European internet access released this week by Eurostat, the EU's statistical agency. More than 100 million people in the EU, around a quarter of its population, have never used the internet. The division is sharp between the richer North, such as Sweden and Denmark, and the South, such as Romania, where around 54pc of the population have never used the internet.

But plenty of people don't find much use for the internet. My mother has never found any reason to do so. If she wants to find something out, she'll look it up in the dictionary or the Children's Britannica, the wonderful 20-volume reference work which has been the go-to place for everything factual in our family for 40 years now.

Is this what every great liberation of information discovers: that the base or foolish aspect of human nature appears to triumph? Gutenberg introduced movable type into Europe for the purposes of printing the Bible; within a couple of decades, his English follower Caxton was printing some of the most stupid books ever written. When the Berlin Wall came down, we talked about freedom dawning across Europe: one of the abiding memories of that time is of East Berliners going with amazement into the West Berlin sex shops.

When information liberation comes to that 54pc of Romanians, or the hundreds of millions worldwide in a position of similar ignorance, we needn't expect the result to be an improvement in their lives or minds. We have seen the future, and it looks like billions of people typing the name 'Kim Kardashian' into a search engine, over and over again, and dimly chortling. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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