There is now…

On Christmas afternoon, my son pointed out that much hilarity can be had by typing question words into Google and seeing what Google thinks you’re going to ask. (We made our own entertainment in them days.) Everybody else has probably been doing this since Google instiuted the feature, if you type “how to” you get a list of “how to tie a tie, how to get rid of fruit flies, how to get pregnant” and so on, it’s autocompleting what you type with the most popular searches. If you type “is it weird” you get a list of things people think it’s weird to do. We elaborated—if you type “how to” and then a letter of the alphabet, you get all the queries that go with that, so we played linking them together as if they were one person’s queries over the course of an evening. “How to r” begins with “how to roll a joint”, goes on to “how to roast pumpkin seeds” goes through a lot of other things you might want to roast if you’d rolled a joint, and ends with things that would be a terrible idea when stoned, like “remove wallpaper” and “reformat hard drive”.

The thing that’s oddest to me is that I never format my queries that way. Despite the fact that I wrote a story from Google’s point of view, I don’t actually think of Google as being alive. I use Google to find things out all the time, but if I want to know how to roast pumpkin seeds, I’d type “pumpkin seeds roast recipe”. I do not talk to Google the way people in old science fiction stories talk to their computers, in complete conversational sentences. However, it’s clear that a lot of people do, and that is in one way cool and in another way just weird. I grew up reading stories where people turned to the computer and said things like “Computer, what is the temperature in Addis Abbaba?” and the computer would give the information in a synthesised voice. Google’s almost all the way to being that computer, but of course nobody guessed the skill we’d need of sifting through unreliable data.

We moved on to “are” and letters. A huge number of people want to know whether things are real. It led me to think of compiling a FA—”Are unicorns real? No. Are vampires real? No. Are  zombies real? No. You’re welcome.” The one that threw me was “Are volcanoes alive?” I mean no, but who could possibly ask that question? If you type “are volcanoes” the first four questions are all about this “Are volcanoes alive? Are volcanoes living things? Are volcanoes living or not living? Are volcanoes a living thing?” I would never have guessed anybody had any doubt on the matter. Well, at least Google will set everyone right on that one.

As you’d expect, a lot of queries concern sex, pregnancy, childcare, healthcare, relationships, shaving, and what to do about zits. Others concern matters of information—how to roast garlic, what days are statutory holidays.

You can perfectly reasonably ask Google if Greenland is part of North America, or if voles eat insects. There’s a question and an answer, it’s discoverable. You can also reasonably ask if tylenol is safe in pregnancy. Twenty years ago one of my books said no tylenol and the other said no aspirin and I had to check with my doctor, now the Mayo Clinic website is right at the end of my fingers. You can ask how to get pregnant, and well, you’ll have to sift some information but I think there’s a reasonable chance of you figuring it out from information Google will provide. But you really can’t ask if your partner loves you, or whether they’re cheating. Google won’t know. You might be able to find out online, but you’d really need a more sophisticated search string.

Beyond those much too personal questions, it starts to get metaphysical. “Are people good or bad? Are people good or evil? Are people born good or evil?” If you’re asking Google this, you trust it too much. Which leads me to the last question—I mean Isaac Asimov’s famous short story “The Last Question”. In that story, people build a computer. It was a long time ago, so it was one super computer with all the information in the universe, but apart from that it was just like Google. As soon as they had it running, they asked a question that I found as number one on “does g” and number two on “is g”. “Does God exist?” they asked. “Is God real?” Or, as Asimov formatted it, and number one on “is there”: “Is there a God?”

And the computer replied “There is now.”


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