‘Google is the oracle of redirection’
Marsha Mason as Georgia Heinz in Only When I Laugh, Columbia Pictures, 1981
Google is where we go for answers. People used to go elsewhere or, more likely, stagger along not knowing. Nowadays you can’t have a long dinner-table argument about who won the Oscar for that Neil Simon movie where she plays an actress who doesn’t win an Oscar; at any moment someone will pull out a pocket device and Google it. If you need the art-history meaning of “picturesque,” you could find it in The Book of Answers, compiled two decades ago by the New York Public Library’s reference desk, but you won’t. Part of Google’s mission is to make the books of answers redundant (and the reference librarians, too). “A hamadryad is a wood-nymph, also a poisonous snake in India, and an Abyssinian baboon,” says the narrator of John Banville’s 2009 novel, The Infinities. “It takes a god to know a thing like that.” Not anymore.
The business of finding facts has been an important gear in the workings of human knowledge, and the technology has just been upgraded from rubber band to nuclear reactor. No wonder there’s some confusion about Google’s exact role in that—along with increasing fear about its power and its intentions.
Most of the time Google does not actually have the answers. When people say, “I looked it up on Google,” they are committing a solecism. When they try to erase their embarrassing personal histories “on Google,” they are barking up the wrong tree. It is seldom right to say that anything is true “according to Google.” Google is the oracle of redirection. Go there for “hamadryad,” and it points you to Wikipedia. Or the Free Online Dictionary. Or the Official Hamadryad Web Site (it’s a rock band, too, wouldn’t you know). Google defines its mission as “to organize the world’s information,” not to possess it or accumulate it. Then again, a substantial portion of the world’s printed books have now been copied onto the company’s servers, where they share space with millions of hours of video and detailed multilevel imagery of the entire globe, from satellites and from its squadrons of roving street-level cameras. Not to mention the great and growing trove of information Google possesses regarding the interests and behavior of, approximately, everyone.
When I say Google “possesses” all this information, that’s not the same as owning it. What it means to own information is very much in flux.