“Existence as autofill” or “Us, according to Google”

April 3, 2010

For all the hubbub about Google winning the country of Peru in a dice game with Microsoft and Sony, raising an android army of Roombas, and starting World War III with China, that company is surprisingly boring. “Impossible!” you say. “They’re gathering data on all of us and using it for purposes that we can’t possibly fathom!” I hate to break it to you, but they aren’t. Google just aggregates crap that we put on the internet and feeds it back to us in a slightly more organized way. They’re a search engine. An information index. There’s nothing there that we haven’t put there.

Perhaps that’s what makes it so troubling. If Google merely indexes what’s already there, ranking by whatever is most heavily linked to, what can be gleaned from the Google search auto-complete feature? As we type our queries in, Google search makes “suggestions” based off of popular searches. Out of curiosity, I grabbed the first result from Google’s auto-complete feature letter by letter as a generally unscientific assessment of our cultural values. The results were tragically unsurprising:

Best Buy
Jet Blue
Office Depot
Southwest Airlines
Verizon Wireless
Walmart (I’d have been happier with “wikipedia.” or “weather”)
Xbox 360

Correspondence, commerce, and entertainment & leisure: that’s us in a nutshell. The only possible exceptions to this trend were “dictionary” and “quotes,” which represent the only indication we seek anything deeper than the need to yap, buy, and be entertained (for the record, the only names to appear in any of the one-letter auto-fills were Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Brittany Murphy, Oprah, and Tiger Woods). I don’t really know what I would have expected.

Oh, and as an afterthought, lets go by the numbers:

12 Days of Christmas (Well I like Christmas music)
2010 Calendar (I’m just thankful it wasn’t “2012”)
30 Rock (I can roll with this)
4chan (if you don’t know, you probably don’t want to)
500 Days of Summer (Really? That movie wasn’t particularly good. Ok, ok, I haven’t seen it.)
60 Minutes (the first indication of a search for current events)
7zip (The only occurence of  software to make the list)
80’s music (fueling my hope that Back to the Future II will come to pass)
90210 (I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that)
0 Balance Transfer (Given the economic climate, I’ll give people some credit for this one–no pun intended)

I’m only a bit more encouraged by the numbers game, since we see a few things (news, software, information, and whatever you want to classify 4chan as) that don’t fall under the decadent alphabetical search. If you’re interested in a little comparison, check out google.co.uk or google.ca to see what our UK and Canadian buddies are into. It’s only slightly more encouraging, with a higher percentage of searches for news, directions, weather, and Ikea.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m living happily in my glass house tossing stones. I love my 30 Rock, 80’s music, and 0% APR as much as the next guy. If you think I’m claiming some kind of cultural high ground, think again. This is a weblog, not an Ayn Rand novel.


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