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Posted at 04:55 PM ET, 03/01/2012

Our Google histories, ourselves


Not sure what this is, but it looks hip! (Denis Doyle - BLOOMBERG)
It is a few hours before midnight on February 29, and I am frantically deleting my Google history.

That ill-advised search for videos of David Hasselhoff flying. Delete. Why was I looking for “pedophile jewelry”? Delete. Cat hits wall? How have I searched for that more than two dozen times?

My life is flashing before my eyes. Everything I’ve searched. Every video I’ve watched. Everything I’ve been curious about in the past four months — boom.

It’s tour of fleeting curiosities. Some have likened it to a diary. It’s as close to a record of unfiltered thought as you can come.

On Facebook, we filter. On Twitter, even when we’re engaged on brainless tirades about the recently deceased, we make certain to obey the character limit.

But Google has no such constraints. I often complain about it — it makes us more dependent on external sources for knowledge, it means that libraries these days are solely the resort of strange bearded men with specific UFO theories — but it remains one of the wonders of the world. Google will answer all the questions you never dared ask anywhere else.

Sex columnist Dan Savage noted in a recent column that the number of specific nuts-and-bolts questions about physical dilemmas has plummeted, with questions about the human dynamics of relationships taking their place. People don’t need to write in to a man in Seattle to find out what that strange-looking implement is. They can Google it. Give Google a few more years and we won’t need doctors.

Before, you had to go to the library and ask for the book with the unmarked cover and paw through it after smuggling it inside a copy of Highlights Magazine — which, in retrospect, made the whole thing even creepier than it needed to be.

Now all you have to do is type your query into the blank, expressionless box on Google, and you’ll know all you need. The only result might be from a man in Topeka who posted on a message board in 1998, but the number of questions that have been posted only once is startlingly small. Not only does someone out there have the answer — you aren’t even the first one to ask.

The only tradeoff is privacy.

Curiosity once killed the cat. Now it just means the cat gets some very pointedly targeted ads.

But Google’s new privacy policy reminds us of the uncomfortable price of all this free information. With Internet searches, we thought we could go through life without being That Guy Who Asks What This Growth Might Be And How To Deal With It. But Google knows. At least, if we’re logged in and have enabled Search History, it knows. Otherwise, it still tracks our searches by IP address.

Now it’s consolidated our information — never mind that new “Online Bill of Rights”; it’s more of a series of guidelines anyway— so that information we supplied in one context, say, Searching For Amusing Videos at 3 AM, is now melded with information we supplied in another, wildly different context, say, Constructing An Immaculate Public Profile For Work-Related Reasons. And so we get ads for things like Video Series On Coming To Terms With Probably Being An Axe Murderer and Metamucil (those might both just be me). If we want to use one of its services in isolation, without being reminded of who we are on all the others, we have to log out.

So I was deleting everything. I had to make sure there was no public record of my curiosity. It was all very well for my actual friends to know I’d been looking for “pedophile jewelry.” But that couldn’t possibly go on my unified profile. What if anyone saw the ads they were sending me?

But why should I be embarrassed?

We ask Google everything. Just type in “Do I” and it suggests “have ADD? Like him quiz? have to file taxes?”

Type in “am I” and it returns “pregnant? in love? fat?”

Why would Google know? And yet we ask.

And Google’s search statistics for us, as a nation, are more incriminating than almost any results for us as individuals. Among the top ten trending searches now? Snooki’s pregnancy and Justin Bieber’s birthday. The fact that more people want to know about Justin Bieber’s birthday than — well, almost anything under the sun— is the kind of thing that forces you to stare into the abyss, and forces the abyss to stare back into you and shake its head sadly.

We ask Google everything.

One of the underlying assumptions of modern social life is that there is nothing more unpleasant than asking another person a question face to face. The only thing less pleasant is speaking to a human on the telephone, a function our smartphones — thank the Maker! — will soon no longer offer.

Google is the record of our wonderings. Why should we be ashamed to wonder? We have nothing to hide. But that doesn’t mean we should accept the scrutiny. There is no one whose browser history, if it were published, would not fill the world at large with shame and horror. And it’s not because we’re secretly monsters. It’s because we’re curious.

There’s no harm in that. But that didn’t save the cat.

By  |  04:55 PM ET, 03/01/2012

Tags:  Google

 
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