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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: Google shows us who we really are. It's not pretty

Is this what every great liberation of information discovers: the base aspect of human nature triumphs?

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. One sort-of-knows. 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. According to the OED, it took 12 years from the registering of the Hoover in 1927 before someone said in print, "I was Hoovering my passage" (Noel Streatfeild, as it happens), 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, and become a transitive verb. "I've googled some keywords," a contributor to a message board said, expecting to be understood.

Possibly the English language could cope with the task that Google carries out – "I've researched it through an internet search engine" - but "to google" is more specific, as well as briefer. "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. It terms this list "zeitgeist", assuming that what people look for by using its services is synonymous with the spirit of the age.

The one bright spot we garner from this grim list is that it suggests that women have an equal or superior claim on the attention of the British to men. Who are we interested in? Nicki Minaj, Darren Criss, Ed Sheeran, Rebecca Black, Megan Fox, Jessica Jane, Randy Savage. (I'm going a little bit judge-in-the-anecdote about some of these names.) What do we want to discover? We asked what is or are "AV, scampi, truffles and piles". Do we want to improve our lives? We asked Google how to revise, to snog, to reference, to wallpaper, to draw, sleep, and flirt.

It's worth remembering that these searches, as reported by Google, 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 were told that the internet was there to increase the sum of human understanding, to help us unearth information in half a second which, 20 years ago, would have taken mornings in the best library in the world to discover. 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, with access rates of over 90 per cent, and the South, such as Romania, where around 54 per cent of the population have never used the internet.

It doesn't surprise me at all. Plenty of people don't find much use for the internet. My own mother, she tells me, 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 54 per cent 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.