Monday, February 27, 2012

Some Things In Life Just Cannot Be "Googled"

“Not all those who wander are lost.”              --J.R.R. Tolkien

Google: is there any thing or any one or any place that cannot be found by this company’s ubiquitous search engine services?  Probably not.  At least not anymore.  In the mere fifteen years since this company was founded by two Stanford University graduate students, Google has become the go to source for any and all of our information needs. 

Need a video, want to track down the final episode of “Gilligan’s Island” or a 1936 speech by Franklin Roosevelt or the latest viral feed from the civil war in Syria? It’s there on YouTube.  Need to find your way in the world? Use Google Earth which has mapped much of the United States and lots of the world using millions of satellite and street level images.  Wondering how fast a cheetah can run or how to make an apple pie or need the exact words to the Constitution? Type it in the search box and voila, pay dirt, all in about a hundredth of a second. 

Google is now so widely used it has become a verb unto itself, “to google”, meaning to seek and search.  I even read one “fact” on a tech blog, courtesy of a Google search, which claims that in the United States 57 percent of children now say “Google” as their first word.  True? Maybe.  But hey I googled it. That makes it right, right?

A whole generation of students has never known a world without the luxury of Google.  No longer confined to the never ending stacks of a library with noses buried in the “The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature”, carefully thumbing through 3 by 5 index cards in a card catalog, now all they need to write a paper or deliver a speech or peruse an old book digitally scanned onto the Internet is…Google.  We use Google to virtually travel and virtually explore and understand the world, even if that journey is not really real, instead confined to the borders of a screen. 

When it comes to finding: finding our way, finding out, finding an answer, finding anything Google rules. Google rocks.  Google is it, right? Google is even developing a set of eyeglasses (Google goggles) which when worn by the user will theoretically allow us to walk in the physical world while viewing it all through a digital overlay from those specs.  “Look” at a restaurant and the goggles will call up a menu to peruse, reviews to read, and even a full color photo picture of the main course.

But here’s a confession, one which might reveal me a doddering old dinosaur of a man in this scintillatingly speedy high tech world where to “search” now means to tap away on a keyboard.  I also like to “search” out in the real world sometimes without any digital assistance.  No voice activated Sirri to guide my way, no GPS to save me from getting lost, no indexed search engine results to spell it all out. 

I like to go to a bookstore and wander the aisles, pick up a book, flip through its pages, get lost in its words which are printed on real paper. I like to feel its heft, its weight.  I like to go on long car trips and pull off on a mysterious highway exit and then park on a quiet Main Street and then walk, looking in the windows of antique stores and junk emporiums, then go within and get lost in the piles of potential treasure.  I like to check out a new restaurant in town without any advance warning or online reviews and sit down and pick up a menu and order something strange or odd or unknown and then tumble down into the sweet taste of discovering something for the first time.  I like to hike on a hidden forest trail or a sandy blue sky beach and not clutch a smart phone in my hand, expectantly, desperately awaiting the next text message or voicemail or update. I like to watch a movie on a big screen in an actual theater then get taken up and into a celluloid fantasy while munching greasy popcorn and getting lost in that physical space, that place, beyond the confines of my living room TV or laptop computer.

All technological leaps and revolutions, like a Google, like the I-Pad, like smart phones, offer new ways of living in the world but also sacrifice old ways of living in the world. We gain something when we adopt a new device but we lose something too.  When humans switched from horses to cars we lost the gift of experiencing the world at ten miles per hour and no longer saw our surroundings in the same way.  When we adopted the telephone we lost the chance to visit face to face with another, over a coffee, over the fence.  When we embraced email and text messages we lost the art of letter writing, of putting pen to paper with real thought, the anticipation of a card or note arriving in the mailbox. 

Technology is always a zero sum game. Google has made humans less courageous in a way, less curious, less likely to wander with no apparent destination in mind, less willing to seek answers without an assumed place to find that information.  By gathering all the information for us, Google can potentially take away the gift of getting lost in the world, forced to work at finding information or making a connection or stumbling upon a discovery. Google potentially takes the surprise out of the human impulse to explore and in the process of journeying, to discover something wholly unexpected along the way.

No I’m not going to give up Google.  I like it. It helps me to live.  But still there is something wondrous and joyful about wandering and just getting lost sometimes. That sensation, that thrill, that serendipitous epiphany?

You just can’t Google it.


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