Thursday, 7 February 2013

Everything is on Google, not.

Philip Harvey
We goggle at Google, we garble what we google, we gobble Google and go. A lead article in The Guardian reports on the latest expansions of the mega-company, leaving us to wonder if Google is the gentle giant of our waking beliefs, or really a ravenous monster, ready to upend our preconceived notions of free knowledge.

Although I first read the article online, it is the print version in the berliner-style Guardian Weekly for 1st February 2013 that I used to scribble my red biro underlinings and questions about basic assumptions of the present state of affairs.

The writer Tim Adams opens with a fair doozy: he describes Google as “the omnipotent engine.” Remember that this is good British journalism, where a dash of irony is likely to be somewhere in the dish, but Adams is also caught up in the buoyant enthusiasm of those for whom the internet is the answer to our every question and the challenge to our creative drives. Adams is not alone in liking to think that Google is more or less omnipotent, or has the potential to be. The fact that it neither is nor can be does not weaken this enthusiasm, it only increases it. That there are inherent dangers in being omnipotent is something else that is glided over.

Such is the zizziness of the zeitgeist, Adams soon says, “…it is almost inconceivable to imagine how we might have gone about finding the answer to some of these questions only 15 years ago without it – a visit to the library? To a doctor? To a shrink?” While Google delivers in real time (itself a computer term) it sounds almost pedestrian to reply that not only are questions still being answered by librarians, but that libraries remain the only place where many of the questions are going to be answered with any kind of thoroughness. Behind Adams’ wonderings lies a question in turn: is Everything on Google? Even though it is not, the tenor of the article would imply that it does have Everything. Well, no actually. But while librarians and others will comment that I state the obvious here, the assumption that everything is on Google goes on being generally unquestioned by many of its million of users. And therein lies the ghastly gorblimey Google issue.

Tim Adams introduces us to the head of Google Search in California, Amit Singhal. He and his colleagues are developing Knowledge Graph. If your view is that “searching is ever more intimately related to thinking” then it doesn’t take long to see that the web itself could possibly provide not just the data, but the answers themselves. Tim Berners-Lee called this “the semantic web” and Singhal & Co. work towards making “the computer understand the context of what was being asked.” Knowledge Graph is a California Dreaming, a mouse chasing its  tail, but its creators seem to ignore the simple fact that searching has always been intimately related to thinking. Humans will go on searching, even if Google went glop tomorrow.  I don’t say this to be unfair to the utopian possibilities of computer technology, but to remind ourselves that online is simply another way of finding what we need to know. Knowledge Graph may be a structure that can “mimic the way we think”, but that doesn’t mean it thinks the way we do. And when we consider the chances of it doing so, the artificial apparitions of Mary Shelley and Karel Capek loom in our imaginations.

There are curious side effects to visionary enthusiasm of this kind too. To be truly human, Google will have to start getting some of the answers wrong. Another assumption behind collecting Everything, which seems to be Google’s glorious goal, is that there is often more than one correct answer, the answer you have may be the wrong one, or it may be misleading or incomplete. Often it is the human mind, not a computer, that discerns which from which.

The Google people have yet to put a definite upper limit on their expectation of Everything. Librarians learn over a lifetime that information changes and knowledge expands. The very existence of new books is evidence that we will never achieve the optimum Everything. But Google is trying awfully hard with the devices at its disposal. Turnover in Reference is a fact of life.

Tim Adams himself is rightly inspired by Amit Singhal’s enthusiasm, still he cannot complete a Guardian article without some tough closing questions. “But what about the less measurable ways that the ease of search has changed our lives?” he asks. “What about the ways in which it has diminished the excitement of serendipity, the way that it has made the personal experience of a chance encounter with knowledge so much rarer?”  

Once more we find that the human mind of Singhal has thought of that. He seems to want Knowledge Graph to be able to provide serendipity and chance encounter as well, though it must be observed that this is serendipity on Google’s terms.

Is Search in Google’s sense the same as Reference in a librarians’ sense?  When I ponder this difference I hear in my mind a kind of Eliotian conundrum. I know I will be staring at this conundrum tomorrow and next week and next year. Between the random miasma of Google Search and the equally fallible systematic focus of Reference falls the shadow.


  1. How true is this. But then the databases, to which individuals can't afford to subscribe (how democratic is that?), don't necessarily have the answers either. Perhaps we need an a-Google site which lists the questions to which there are not answers on Google, or anywhere else for that matter. The unanswered or unanswerable questions....

    As a teacher of literature, there is a class of reference work which is very generic to which I enjoy directing students (OED, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Benet's Reader's Encyclopaedia etc etc) who are bushed, but one always had to issue the caveat: 'it's just a starting point'. I suspect most now start with Google, and maybe Google ought publicise the same caveat, or maybe it would be more instructive to get students to do their own edits. I've never done that myself, so I'm not even sure it's possible, but I suspect it is because of some of the prank entries I've seen on Google.

  2. Thank you Frances. As well as the a-Google site I am sure many internet searchers can compile their own online personal blogs of unanswered questions. It sometimes seems that the e-list is one way of regulating the questions and answers that are on Google-not. When I consider your second paragraph, reference becomes more and more quite a complex matter of individual awareness. True librarians are concerned about this a lot: what do our users want and do they have the means to find it? Are they finding the answers? It is the same old question, but online only makes it more challenging. One simple challenge, just to begin with, is that many people think Google = The Internet. It is something of an assumption behind the Guardian's own report on Knowledge Graph, but is false, of course.