»  National Review Online

November 14th, 2002

  The Age of Google


The other day I was reading a story on MSNBC about a recent breakthrough in pure mathematics. The precise nature of the breakthrough is not important for my purposes here, and you can read about it yourself if you feel inclined. The breakthrough was made by one Professor Agrawal, a computer scientist in India. What caught my eye was in this paragraph, about the path Prof. Agrawal traveled to the solution he was seeking:

It was a long three years. While no slouch in math, Prof. Agrawal said he sometimes had to use Google to find information on the more recondite aspects of number theory. His Eureka! moment came in July …

He sometimes had to use Google … Of course he did! Is there any among us who does not use Google half a dozen times a day? This amazing product has, in just four years, made itself so indispensable that its name is becoming an ordinary verb, like "to hoover," or "to xerox." Anyone who needs to look up things as part of his daily work, be he a mere hack opinion journalist or a Professor of Computer Science, is hooked on Google.

I myself use Google — which is to say, I google — an average of, I should think, around 40 or 50 times a day. I google a lot when doing these blogs. For example, I may need to draw in a quote to reinforce some point I'm making. A dozen or more blogs ago I was trying to recall some remark Winston Churchill had made about "frightfulness."  It was, I felt pretty sure, something in connection with the 1919 Amritsar massacre.*  I flipped to Google, typed in "churchill frightfulness amritsar," and sure enough, there it was: a House of Commons speech the old bulldog made on July 8th, 1920. In a matter of seconds I had the full text of the speech in front of me, complete with Churchill's exchanges with other members.

Pre-Google, I could not have done this. It would have been inconceivable. Search engines have been around for years, of course — for longer than web browsers, in fact, as old hands at internet research will recall. There was nothing as comprehensive as this, though. Before about 1999 there was really no way for me to track down that quote without getting access to expensive subscriber-only databases — and not even then, probably, in a case as vaguely-defined as "churchill frightfulness amritsar."  This astonishing power I have at my fingertips is new enough that it still seems slightly miraculous; yet it is familiar enough, after just a couple of years, that only with difficulty can I remember now I managed — or more likely, failed to manage — before Google came along.

There seems to be no end to the miracles Google can deliver. By way of researching my pop (in my dreams!) math book, I wanted to read a speech given by the great German mathematician David Hilbert at the time of his retirement in 1930. The speech is famous among mathematicians for its ringing rebuttal of the notion that there are limits to what human beings can know. Its closing words were: Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen — "We must know, we will know." These words became so well-known, they are inscribed on Hilbert's tombstone at Göttingen. OK, off to Google: "hilbert speech 1930." The very first link returned not only had the text of the speech, it also had an imbedded MP3 file of Hilbert's actual voice delivering the speech! (Taken from a 78-rpm vinyl disk that was made of the speech soon afterwards, and that sold briskly. "Celebrity mathematician" was not an oxymoron in Weimar Germany.) I listened in fascination. I had been told that Hilbert, a native of Königsberg, had an atrocious East Prussian accent, but I found that in fact I could understand his spoken German as well as I can understand anyone else's (though that, to be sure, is not saying very much).

I gave another instance of Google power in my April diary on NRO, in reference to the passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Ampleforth is arrested by the secret police for a literary indiscretion he committed while translating the poems of Kipling into Newspeak. "'I allowed the word God to remain at the end of a line. I could not help it!' he added almost indignantly, raising his face to look at Winston. 'It was impossible to change the line. The rhyme was rod. Do you realize that there are only twelve rhymes to rod in the entire language? …'" But what poem was that? Over to Google: key in "kipling god rod," and out comes the answer, bada bim, bada boom.

People are even using Google as a dictionary, or a guide to usage. A few weeks ago I wrote in a blog about pension plans being "baled out" by the federal government. "Bail/bale" is one of those things I am never sure of, so before typing the word, I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster's Third I keep on my hard disk. MW3 allows either "bale" or "bale" in this usage, so I went with "bale" at random. Many readers, however, obviously equipped with inferior dictionaries (ha!) emailed in to pour scorn on my illiteracy. One fellow really got my attention, though. He had pulled up the Google Advanced Search, set "language" to English, restricted the search to sites updated in the last 3 months, and asked Google to show 100 search results on a page. With "bale out" and "pension" he got only 36 hits; with "bail out" and "pension" he got 683. Hence, he deduced, "bail out" was more correct than "bale out." I hasten to say I think his deduction was way off beam; but the interesting thing is that someone would use Google so ingeniously to decide an issue like this.

Throw out your Merriam-Webster, throw out your Fowler and Follett — throw away your whole shelf of reference books, in fact. Why do I need this damn thick Oxford Classical Dictionary to tell me who Praxagoras of Cos was? I can google him faster than I can get the book down from my shelf. Well, not quite yet, perhaps. The OCD actually tells me more about Praxagoras than any web site I could find (in English, at any rate). Nor does Google yet fulfill all the functions of a good dictionary of quotations, either. Suppose you want a nice erudite quote to fill out something you are saying about the law (for example). Typing "law" into Google isn't going to get you there. You are much better off turning to the index of a good dictionary of quotations — the 1955 Oxford book and the 1924 Benham's are my favorites — and browsing the quotations — which, among other advantages, come in half a dozen languages for added erudicity. ("Erudicity?" Google that!).

And not everything is yet online in any form. A month or so ago I quoted a line from a John Betjeman poem. Several readers wanted to know where they could read the whole poem. Not on the Web, is the answer — at any rate, Google couldn't find it. Those of us who have actually read and memorized a lot of stuff still have an edge, though probably not for much longer. I feel a bit like the guys who knew how to manipulate slide rules must have felt when pocket calculators came in. I have a head full of junk, crammed with odd and arcane facts, which I can sprinkle through my writing to add charm and seasoning to it. That head full of junk used to be my working capital. But now, anyone else can get the same effect, just by googling. Plato thought that the development of reading and writing had destroyed men's power to remember things. Imagine what he would have said about Google. (And darn it, no, I did not google that little factlet, I have actually read Plato.)

It can only be a matter of time, though, before junk-packed heads like mine are redundant. This sad reflection, for all that I love Google and depend on it, leaves me with mixed feelings. Google is making my line of work a bit too easy in some respects. Anybody can google up a telling quote from the internet, discover arcane facts, dazzle with erudition. All too often recently I have found myself reading a magazine or webzine piece that has just one too many apt quotes and deep references in it. Oh, I say to myself, he googled that stuff. Time was, when a writer said: "Kierkegaard observed that …," there was at least a fighting chance that he had actually read Kierkegaard. Nowadays it is much more likely he just used Google to flesh out some dimly-remembered quote he heard from a college lecturer or a TV talking head, or came on by chance while browsing. Oscar Wilde is supposed to have gone to dinner parties with one or two well-prepared apothegms, and spent the whole evening gently steering the conversation round so he could utter them. In a web or magazine opinion column, which is basically a dinner party at which only one diner gets to say anything, this is all too easy.

No use complaining about progress, though. And for all my petty chagrin, this most certainly is progress. A vast world of knowledge — all the knowledge in the world, in fact — is opening up to anyone with an $800 computer and an internet account. It is an astonishing and wonderful advance for our civilization. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who jointly founded Google in September 1998 (and neither of whom looks old enough to shave) are up there with Edison and Marconi, in my estimation. July 1945 brought in the Atomic Age; in October 1957 we entered the Space Age. I'm not sure of the precise sequence of ages after that, but, speaking for myself, as a knowledge worker, this, for me, is the Age of Google.

* You don't know what the Amritsar Massacre was? So google it.