My Word: Google and the ties that bind

Unlike Googlists (you know where you can find out about them), I don’t believe the search engine has all the answers.

'Zionist' Google search responses (photo credit: screenshot)
'Zionist' Google search responses
(photo credit: screenshot)
Last week I heard a radio report marking Google’s 20th birthday. My first reaction was “Where did those two decades go?” My second, of course, was to Google it myself. And it wasn’t that simple. The most common narrative has university students Larry Page and Sergey Brin setting up in a California garage in 1997, hence the 20th figure, but the company’s own site says its story began at Stanford University in 1995, when Page and Brin, working from their dorm rooms, “built a search engine that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. They called this search engine Backrub.”
The site says the company was incorporated on September 4, 1998, although other birthday dates given include September 7, 8, 26 and 27. Given that in the last 20 years Google has become the Oracle and Guardian of All Knowledge, I find it disturbing that it can’t keep track of its own date of birth.
The Reshet Bet report revealed that ahead of the anniversary, whenever that is, Google published the most popular “how to” search trends over the past 13 years, analyzing the most-asked questions on the search engine. Top of the list, incongruously, was “How to tie a tie,” followed by “How to kiss,” “How to get pregnant,” “How to lose weight” and “How to draw.”
“How to make money” was strangely in the sixth place. I’m not sure why those who learned to kiss, get pregnant and lose weight were more interested in drawing than finances. And I have no idea what the connection is to tying neckties. I’m scared that if I start Googling it, I’ll be sucked into a never-ending search in cyberspace and will be left with no time to write the rest of this column.
As the radio reporter noted, it seems strange that when Google offers all the world’s stored knowledge at your fingertips, tying ties should be the most pressing question for so many of its billion- plus users.
I learned how to tie a tie as a child. For some reason most British schools at the time believed that five-year-olds who can barely tie shoelaces should wear ties. Not only is tying them a knotty problem at that age, but I still wonder how no one suffered strangulation on the playground when things got rough.
Learning how to tie a tie, incredibly, came in handy during my military service. Serving in the IDF Liaison to the UN Forces unit, my commanding officer occasionally had to wear dress uniform. Formality did not come naturally to the Sabras in the unit (the UN soldiers were shocked that we called officers by first name only, without a rank). I was pleased, new immigrant that I was, that I had a skill that the natives had not acquired and I was able to pass the art on.
Our commander didn’t know how to tie a tie, but he was very tech-savvy, so our unit had a computer in the early 1980s, long before most others and before we could really make use of it.
A generation has grown up with Google. A few years ago, I wanted to check a fact in an article I was editing (the figure of 2,000 Jews massacred in Acre in the war against the Romans seemed unbelievably high, but turned out to be sadly true or even a low estimate.) As two interns rolled their eyes before looking on with an appalled fascination, I took a heavy printed encyclopedia off the shelf. One intern coughed. I don’t know if it was to stifle a giggle or because of the dust. Clearly she had never seen anything like it.
The volumes of encyclopedias did not come with to our new offices when The Jerusalem Post moved in 2013. Encyclopedias were once sold by salesmen going from door-to-door. That’s one of the many jobs that have disappeared since desktops, laptops and smartphones came into our lives.
Last week I was discussing the topic of vanishing jobs with a friend who’d just returned from a conference on education in the computer age. A surprising number and range of jobs are being taken over by robots, including some in the field of journalism, where, for example, financial data and sports results can be collected by algorithms and presented without commentary.
I joked that the only job that will be safe in the future will be a plumber as pipes will always get blocked. The topic had come up at the conference, my friend told me, and she noted the possibility that in the future plumbers will be able to make long-distance diagnostics of a problem and send people instructions on how to fix it. (I’m assuming most people will have googled it first anyway.) I accidentally discovered a possible cause of blocked pipes: On the “How to...” list, “How to make slime” is in the 17th slot, a place above “How to love.”
I’m beginning to wonder what Google’s infinite memory makes of me, but I’m pretty sure it has the wrong impression given what I’ve searched just in the course of writing this column. (Readers with dirty minds should be aware that I got carried away with the “slime” category rather than tips on loving.) And I bet advertisements for on-line encyclopedias will be popping up on my screen for a while yet.
My most extraordinary Google experience occurred a few years ago when I grew frustrated by a voice recognition problem and let out a mild British expletive: A voice from the laptop responded: “Fat girl.” So much for caring about body image and feelings, as the company boasts.
Google use is free, but we pay a high price in the lack of privacy. And, since it uses our previous search information as a basis for its suggestions, it also acts as a filter. It means that one giant corporation controls what we see and also what information we have access to. History won’t be lost, but it might be deleted, or distorted.
Google helps us keep in touch and to build communities. My colleague and friend Steve Linde coined a term for Googling Jews: Joogle. But the company has also had a role in spreading hate. Just this week the Post’s Max Schindler reported that “Advertisers have been able to target Facebook users who expressed hatred for Jews in their profiles and Google searchers who typed in antisemitic keywords, both companies acknowledged on Sunday in response to media probes.
“Google’s algorithm offered antisemitic keywords that advertisers could use to target people making antisemitic and racist searches, a Google employee told The Jerusalem Post. Some of the predicted keywords included questions such as ‘The evil Jew,’ ‘Jewish control of banks’ and ‘Why do Jews ruin everything?’”
I’m happy to ruin one thing for Google: This week Jews celebrate the two-day New Year holiday followed by the Sabbath. That’s three days in which Orthodox Jews won’t be googling at all. Literally switching off the electronic world enables me to recharge my virtual and spiritual batteries. I highly recommend it – especially as, unlike Googlists (you know where you can find out about them), I don’t believe the search engine has all the answers. When I type in “Go....” I want “God” to come up before the Google brand name.