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?

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The economics of the stock market is simple really: buy and hold

Ben Chu
Jeb Bush's campaign will emphasise both his conservative record as a former governor of Florida and his commitment to building a more inclusive Republican Party  

American democracy is up for sale, and it’s a warning to us all

Shirley Williams
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border