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Just Let Me Check One Last Thing . . .

By Rob Dubbin
Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Certainly if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off."

-- Sergey Brin, co-founder, Google

* * *

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

-- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

I wish Google didn't make me think of tentacles. It never did before I tried avoiding it for 24 hours -- a doomed exercise that began as a challenge and morphed into a horror show.

This was supposed to be a birthday present to the Internet's reigning brand -- admittedly, an odd sort of gift for a company that so thrives on participation. Ten years ago today, on Sept. 7, 1998, Google was officially incorporated, beginning its historical march to ubiquity from a Silicon Valley garage. What better way to celebrate Google's dominance -- search, e-mail, chat, maps, news, calendars, Mars-- than to abstain from its services entirely?

As it turns out, there probably were less stressful ways. If the stakes had been higher, say I'd crossed an ancient crone who cursed me such that the sight of Google's logo caused my instant demise, I would be dead. Even that now seems humane by comparison -- each time I fled Google's grasp over the course of this assignment, the blue "G" found a way to surprise me around corners, grinning like some horrible fanged maw.

Fri., Aug. 29, 5:43 p.m. Last preparations in Firefox, my preferred browser, which includes a host of Google default settings. New homepage? Check. Search box toggled to Yahoo? Check.

I have the unsettling thought that search referrals are what keep Firefox alive, its nonprofit parent corporation subsisting almost entirely on revenue from the Dread Teat of Mountain View. So this feels a bit like severing an umbilical. Somewhere, black ichor spills from a writhing stump, and Google screams blindly in pain. It's on.

Google helps people, is the rub. It makes finding everything from directions to a business model as effortless as typing what you want and trusting the results -- which, of course, we all now do, usually without thinking. When I am at work, trying to find the Inuit word for "hat," and Google tells me the answer is "Nasak," I accept this as "likely true" and move on with my life; ten years ago, I don't know what I would have done. Probably married an Inuit.

So why question a good deal? My liver does a nice job making bile, and I rarely feel the need to avoid it on a lark. Oh, that's right -- I was born with a liver. It didn't slide into my ear canal one night while I was sleeping so it could eat my thoughts and digest them into advertisements.

That last part has always made me uncomfortable. Google converts what is essentially a waste product -- the discarded spoor of browsing -- into something we are literally fed. Ninety-nine percent of the time it doesn't register, because algorithms are mediocre cooks. The "targeted" ads next to the e-mail I received about writing this article included three plugs for "the next Google" and a killer deal on a Total Body Shaver. Thanks but no thanks -- I already have a Total Body Shaver.

It's the remaining 1 percent that's trouble, the just-for-you links that smell like tasty roast chicken and look so irresistibly delicious that they distract you from the suckered appendage holding the serving dish and the Uncanny Kitchen from whence it came.

Sat., Aug. 30, 1:07 p.m. I log in to Gmail before I realize what I'm doing. It is not the last time this will happen.

Any good servant will tell you that the key to staying employed is cultivating a benign but deeply rooted dependence on the part of your master. No matter how many times George Jetson gets fired, that automatic shower machine is a constant in his life -- in this future, unemployment is nothing compared to the implied terror of washing yourself.

But somewhere in that shower machine's data banks are massive logs of everywhere George Jetson has ever been dirty, dynamic maps showing hair growth and loss over time, and detailed 3-D models of his business parts. Not that he volunteered the information -- it's just the kind of thing a robot notices when it bathes you.

Sun., Aug. 31, 12:23 p.m. Having successfully reserved a Zipcar to help a friend move some things into storage, I am presented with a confirmation page featuring the location of my vehicle and a handy map of . . . oh my God.

Sun., Aug. 31, 12:24 p.m. May as well just glance at my e-mail.

It was a pretty big deal when Google opened up its Maps service, a runaway success in the half-year following its launch, to outside programmers at the end of 2005. Within months, Google Maps lived on thousands of domains, bursting fully formed from the swollen bodies of the static MapQuest graphics they replaced. It's a textbook symbiotic relationship: Companies such as Zipcar get good maps, and Google gets a fresh vein of user-experience data and a new host for millions of unblinking eyestalks.

Just last weekend, Google made another splash by taking the multicolored curtain off Chrome, an open-source, state-of-the-art Web browser that promises to greatly increase the performance of data-rich applications such as Google Maps. It also promises to make Chrome the platform upon which future applications are designed to run, potentially squeezing out competitors less willing to innovate. I really hope this helps Google find whatever unholy pattern of human behavior they're looking for, because the next step from here is demanding that we simply hand over our brains.

Sun., Aug. 31, 6:26 p.m. Stuck in Manhattan traffic at the wheel of the aforementioned Zipcar, which came to me almost entirely without gas. I narrow my eyes at the phone I might ordinarily use to search locally for gas stations -- it doesn't even occur to me to try Yahoo -- when it rings with a call from my parents. They offer to find the nearest Hess station. Reluctantly, I ask for their source. A chill runs down my spine.

When I was in middle school, I used to wish that I had a magic watch (obviously a computer, but it fit inside a watch) that knew everything and could tell me whatever I wanted to know, usually something along the lines of, "Here's a list of the girls who like you." Not that I would have known what to do with that information: I had a girlfriend in middle school, but we never got past seeing a movie with eight friends and not taking our snow jackets off. I wouldn't have shared that with you if I didn't think Google knew about it already. Like the watch, Google knows a me that's far more detailed and complete than the one I'm familiar with.

Mon., Sept. 1, 1:15 p.m. Having at least survived 24 hours without Gmail, I resolve to break that particular seal. Which feels a bit like charging into the garage after the third partygoer doesn't come back from "just getting a beer." But instead of the mind-numbing terror and abject, babbling insanity I expect to wash over me, there are just a few new messages and the same unanswered old ones. "Home again," I think to myself, ignoring whatever just slithered behind my inbox.

Between us, I don't consider Google immoral. But the blind application of algorithms we don't fully understand onto collections of data so vast, rich and personal is fundamentally amoral -- we don't know what we're going to find. You and I don't know, anyway. Larry and Sergey are probably on one of their jets right now, partying with the ancient crone, laughing about their confidential knowledge of a Fortune 500 CEO's penchant for Lego porn.

I went into this experiment fairly certain that it would require the cursory change of an odd habit or two. I learned that my dependence on Google runs deeper than that, encompassing not only my personal Internet use but the nested dependencies of the people and institutions surrounding me. This is perhaps less a celebration of Google's tenth birthday than it is the harrowing revelation of our tenth anniversary. So goodnight, dear Google -- congratulations, and sweet dreams.

robdubbin@gmail.com

Rob Dubbin is a writer for "The Colbert Report."

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