Google is your nonjudgemental, faceless friend who finds you porn and tells you when you need to go to the hospital. Google is the only way most of us can cope with the small crises of adulthood: injuries, household repairs, and our kids’ homework assignments. When Google goes down, even momentarily, it shakes the world economy to its foundation.
For most of us, Google is the first stop when we have a question. An unexpected consequence of this is that a lot of people have developed a weirdly honest, personal relationship with the search engine. People spend years pouring their hearts into empty search bars.
You can catch glimpses of these relationships, occasionally, via Google’s autocomplete feature, which tries to guess the rest of your search based on other popular queries. The results are a more unfiltered look at humanity than we usually get to see – a strange mix of funny and tragic. I spent a few hours today picking out some of the most interesting examples I could find.
These are the questions we ask when we think nobody is listening.
When people are forced to confront big questions about the universe, they used to go and meditate in a cave for thirty years. These days, apparently, they punch it into Google. You could argue that something has been lost, but the modern process is definitely more efficient.
Users really want to know what’s up with this God guy. Is he real? Is he an alien? Does he love me? Does he hate other people? Didn’t that guy die? These questions are touching because of their frankness. These are regular, busy people who don’t have time to go read St. Augustine and Richard Dawkins. They just need to know what happens after you die, so they can pencil it into their schedule.
Relationships are tough. Even happy relationships have their rocky moments – and when those moments come, people turn to Google for help. The result is a weird but enlightening breakdown of the common problems people have in their relationships – and how they vary between the genders.
Let’s start with the basics:
Nothing too shocking here: lots of people with unreciprocated affection. It’s an old story, adjusted only slightly by the invention of SMS. But let’s go a little bit further into the relationship and see what people have to say.
You can’t help but feel like these searches all come from one couple, who need to sit down and have a serious conversation. These are not questions that most people would feel comfortable asking almost anyone in their life, but there are no reservations about asking Google. It’s almost a shame that Google doesn’t run a relationships counseling business on the side.
Another situation people turn to Google in is when they’re faced with a moral dilemma.
The differences between these results is telling. ‘Alright’ has to do with practical questions. ‘Moral’ brings up classic moral dilemmas that date back to antiquity. ‘Ethical’ is clearly only hastily searched by grad students with one hand in a vat of brains. This is a good break-down of near-mode vs. far-mode reasoning – ‘alright’ deals with near mode topics, and ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ brings up far-mode topics.
This is all well and good, but then we get to ‘is it wrong to,’ and it all gets a little weird.
As far as ‘is it wrong’ goes… what? It’s a mix of confused gay teenagers and people who are getting up to some much weirder stuff. Technically none of it is necessarily morally wrong under utilitarian ethics, but… what?
Okay, everyone hold onto your britches. This is going to get a little real.
One of the other things that tends to show up in auto-suggest is racism and prejudice. Let’s get into it.
Obviously, some of these questions shouldn’t be asked in polite company. However, I do think there are some points worth making here. For starters, I don’t think these searches are particularly malicious, and that’s important. When we talk about prejudice, the conversation tends to focus on hate groups like the KKK – people who actively despise anyone different, and try to hurt such people. It’s easy to believe that all prejudice is like this, and that can lead to the illusion of a deeply hostile world.
These search results remind us that prejudice is often simply ignorance. People googling this stuff aren’t doing it to make a point or hurt anyone, they’re doing it because they’re curious. Curious people haven’t made up their minds yet – not completely, anyway, and that’s an indication that there’s still hope.
Whew! Okay. That was rough. Here, watch this corgi getting its belly vacuumed.
Humanity Asking Questions
These Google results are a reflection of humanity – or, at least, the Google-using parts of it. Like fresh snow, machine learning algorithms develop grooves along well-worn paths. While you can’t necessarily track a specific person, you can see the routes that everyone walks – a shadow of peoples’ lives.
This reflection reveals a lot of imperfections, but I don’t think it’s damning. If aliens were to judge our worth solely on the basis of our Google auto-complete results, I don’t think they’d gas the planet.
These results reveal human beings with human flaws and virtues. They cheat and lie and ignore their partners, and are suspicious people who are different than them – but they’re also curious about big questions: right and wrong, and the origin of the universe.
There’s certainly room for improvement, but there are far worse things you could see, looking into such a big mirror.
What’s the strangest autocomplete result you’ve ever seen? Did we miss something sad? Funny? Let us know in the comments!