Gimme More Google?

February 13, 2008

Way back when I was a freshman in high school, circa 1996-1997, the Internet was fairly “new,” or was at least a few years away from being the constant presence it became for many or most by the time I was a freshman in college (math has never been my strong suit, but if memory serves, 2000-2001).  Oddly, my school district decided its students could be trusted with unfettered web access.  This led to the predictable searches for topless Jenny McCarthy, topless Leonardo DiCaprio or, for the more daring kids who smoked outside during lunch and skipped pep rallies (I will only confess to the latter), topless Jenny and Leo getting bottomless together, in the sort of really super awful Photoshop jobs that could only possibly be considered authentic by teenagers.  In 1996. 

Eventually, the school got wise and implemented “Bess, the Internet Retriever.”  Bess, a sort of Lassie (if Lassie reported back to James Dobson instead of Timmy), saved all of us from finding…well, anything.  We went from unlimited access to a sort of controlled censorship that would’ve frustrated Mao.  No one could figure out quite what happened.  Surely no one knew what we’d been searching for!  We (and by we I mean the bad kids) minimized the screen when the marms trolled by!  We cleared our Internet history after each use, then promptly looked up a bunch of smartsy, goody-goody sites to cover our tracks!  What could have been the flaw in our brilliant cover-up attempts?  That cleaning your Internet history actually accomplishes nothing?  Damn it.   

I am not one easily prone to paranoia or conspiracy.  OK, I think there was probably someone on the grassy knoll, but I don’t think Prince Philip took out a contract on Lady Di or that Bush imploded the World Trade Center.  Still, part of me has always been slightly uncomfortable with the idea that some little goon locked in a basement far, far away knows everything I’ve ever done on the Internet.  Or, could know, if ever they were motivated to look it up by forces of good or evil.  That part of me was a little freaked out by Battelle’s “Database of Intentions.”  His idea that it is a “massive database of desires, needs, wants and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked and exploited” seems rather precise.  

The Internet provides ultimate freedom.  One can explore the darkest parts of ones soul (which sounds like a more nefarious place than I imagine it actually is, for most) or the lightest.  Regardless of where an expedition takes someone, the journey no doubt began under an illusion of presumed privacy and security provided by being alone, behind a screen, with little or no thought given to just how many were living behind that screen, accessing or desiring to access every thought turned into type.    

For whatever reason, when considering this week’s topic, I was reminded of the latest Rolling Stone, which features a Britney Spears cover story.  The writer, Vanessa Grigoriadis, eventually concludes that Britney is “the canary in the coal mine of our culture.”  She’s living out all the nightmares and embarrassments of the human experience in the public eye, going places but for the grace of God and Google (or are they the same thing now?) goes the mild-mannered school teacher searching for love on match.com, or the aspiring strucural engineer using a library computer to figure out just how a skyscraper reacts to a bomb.

Has the Internet and the “Database of Intentions,” the digital master catalog of all our most inane and our most significant wants, needs and curiosities turned us all into canaries, walking further into the cultural mine undisturbed by or unaware of the inane and/or significant burst of gas just around the bend?   

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