“THE SEARCH”

Google

by Christine Jacobson

 

do all men watch porn
Silicon Valley tech meetup groups
is online dating a good idea
2015 holidays
realistic feminism
dinner party ideas easy
how soon should i date after getting divorced
Lindsey Pasquale palo alto
relationship advice for women
fast from social networking

It had been a long time since Dr. Williams had seen his research subjects as anything more than strings of keywords, but lately, he had been spending a little extra time observing the searches of “Cassie J.” Instead of just looking for patterns in content based on tangible variables (time between searches, device type, time of day, etc.), he found himself hypothesizing about her based on her latest queries. What had happened to cause her divorce? Why was she so scared of men? Was she conflicted about working at a startup? Was she lonely?

As he watched her online, moving from search to search, he felt a pull—a longing. He wanted more.

But he had to draw the line there. When he had begun this study of search engine patterns in the summer of 2013 through funding from a Libertarian think tank, he had made a contractual commitment to adhere to the strictest privacy standards. Only opted-in participants agreeing to put trackers on their IP addresses would be monitored, a filter would be put in place to obscure any identifying information about his subjects outside of their searches and browsing history, and Dr. Williams would only contact them about study logistics through secondhand contact with a coordinator at the think tank.

So, even though he was several clicks away from overriding the filter, from finding out Cassie J’s name, from seeing her probably perfect complexion, he stopped himself. His job was to remain distant, to keep an intellectual space between him and the online subjects he had been tracking for over a year now. Only then could he have the detachment and focus needed to look at the online searches in isolation—without any substantive attention paid to the other aspects of his subjects’ thoughts, behaviors or interactions. After all, his working theory was that these behavioral gestures alone were enough to explain a massive socio-cultural shift that had been underway for a while now.

But his academic peers weren’t so sure. Many of them were reticent to believe that online behavior without an examination of a subject’s “life outside of the internet” could provide enough context to draw anthropological conclusions, but Dr. Williams found this absurd. It seemed abundantly clear to him that there was no non-internet “us” to speak of. At the very least, he didn’t accept the intellectual assertion that a modern individual could be assumed to have a significant portion of their existence untouched (or unaffected) by web-based technology. So, he kept charging forward with his research, energized by the belief that he was onto something important.

One evening in late 2014, Dr. Williams sat facing the bay windows in the living room of his Haight-Ashbury Victorian watching the going-out crowd disappear into the night. They sounded like sonar blips as they went by—far away at first, close enough to feel, then distant again. He was proud of himself for not succumbing to temptation over the past few weeks but still found his mind landing on Cassie J.  He pictured her alone in her Palo Alto apartment, wrapped in a wool blanket and watching TV. In one hand, she held a nearly empty glass of wine; in the other, her iPhone—cracked screen clutched tightly in her fingers. If he were there with her, he thought, he would brush her golden hair back from her face and talk to her all night.

Behind him, on several glowing screens, the typing continued. On one set of screens were the threads of individual searches and browsing history labeled by subject alias and a brief working theory of the persona:

“Greg M,” the blue collar father from the Midwest who struggles with providing for his large family and regularly searches for cuckold and humiliation porn involving women who likely resembled his wife

“Diego G,” a second generation immigrant in Sacramento who was the first in his family to get a college education and seems to want reassurance that his wealthy girlfriend won’t cheat on him

“Linda B,” the upper class mother balancing a 9-to-5 with the care of three small children who alternates between wondering if her husband was her soulmate and trying to figure out how to be more appealing in the bedroom

“Jason Y,” the young professional who is navigating young adulthood in the big city and feels less unsure about his hit-or-miss dating life when he gazes at live feeds of young and willing women a few years his junior

 “Cassie J,” a Silicon Valley tech company executive with a high degree of emotional intelligence who struggles to balance her ambition with her humanity, and who turns to the internet to provide easy fixes to complicated problems

On the other monitor, there was an aggregated view of searches from across the United States:

10:26pm, iPhone, how do I know if I’m gay?
7:10am, Android, is my zit infected pus
12:12pm, MacBook (private browsing mode), walking in on wife with other man hot
2:27pm, work PC, find new career
4:31pm, Android, will idie from smoking too much
6:48pm, iPad, how to tell if cellophane noodles are cooked enough
1:01am, iPhone, am i normal
2:04am, iPad (private browsing mode), blonde chick live cam

The screen refreshed as quickly as it loaded, moving the words past the top of the screen like water cascading over a dam.

******************************************************************

Today, in 2015, searches like these were woven into the fabric of our day-to-day existence, and Dr. Williams had seen this coming. Back in 2003, when he first graduated from Stanford University with a dual degree in sociology and symbolic systems (the study of artificial and natural systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information), he had had a portion of his senior thesis “Dangerous Democratization: The Impact of the Internet on Expertise, Social Relationships and Survival” published in a Bay Area-based technology journal. In this piece, he expressed concern that the way humans were beginning to rely on the internet would eventually cripple their adaptive, relationship and cognitive skills.

“It will soon no longer be as simple as performing online research. The instant availability of information that is not only likely inaccurate but also generated by other humans who themselves are searching for answers will create an institutionalized sort of ‘blind leading the blind.’ And through this process, expertise—both formal and intuition-based—will be replaced by guesswork, risk-taking will be replaced by indecision and the grappling with difficult interpersonal or identity issues will be supplanted by the repetitive clicking of a mouse. Worst of all, the general consensus will be that more information has liberated us as a society; in fact, the popular dialogue already seems to suggest that unbounded access to both find and create content has democratized our conversations and made the world safer for unconventional perspectives, for niche and sub-cultures and for those who don’t fit binary social standards.

But this dominant way of thinking is dangerous if not viewed in context of long-understood modes of human psychology: namely, that we are highly susceptible to the power of suggestion while more in need of “belonging” than any other living creature. Our search engine culture continues to give us endless—and highly conflicting—ideas of what we should feel, need, want or love, while disconnecting us from the in-person social interactions that can ground us not necessarily in certainty, but at least in reality.

Based on this, it will not be surprising if over the coming decade, we end up with more cases of social anxiety, mental depression and communication disorders than ever before. If we do not foster an open dialogue about the way we are using search engines and social networks, we run the risk of missing an opportunity to balance the benefits of emerging technology with established social and relational mores that we know are essential to human happiness. We may also eventually need to face the possibility that we are weakening the very evolutionary backbones that have equipped the human race for long-term survival.”       

The article received several mentions from a few Bay Area-based professors, but Dr. Williams didn’t see a lot of traction in the months following graduation. So, like many others with similar pedigrees, he found himself in the main lobby of Google’s Mountain View headquarters waiting for what others had described as an overly structured and slightly cultish interview process.

He especially dreaded having to complete some pointless exercise that was more linear than conceptual—say, remove duplicates from a list of strings which was larger than the available memory—but he was also very uncomfortable in the building’s physical environment. Looking around, he decided that the primary colors on a stark white background made the place feel like his childhood pediatrician’s office; even at that age (and despite his mother’s insistence otherwise), he always knew that the zoo-animal-themed decor and bright signage were just a cover for the unpleasantries—from the shots and cough syrup to the scary old doctor with a white beard—to come.

But there was one thing the Googleplex had that was new and fascinating to Dr. Williams: the biggest plasma screen he had ever seen scrolling through real-time Google searches from around the world.

capco stp
internet games
paintball gear
boneless pork chop recipes
calciomercato
mac excel training
yahoo games
cannabis
San Juan-Calingasta
Luciana Salazar
Honey Dunn
charlotte
veet
smith bend texas

As un-related as they were, the pitter-patter of simple and Boolean searches somehow made Dr. Williams feel reassured. Elsewhere, others were looking too.

The endless scroll was interrupted by a blond with a chirpy voice. “Mark!” she said. “I’m Emily, and I’ll be your product development interview coordinator today. Are you ready to take a walk?” She was pretty, conversational and vague—not the kind of girl Dr. Williams ever would have dated or interacted with in a social setting. She also reminded him of his mother: endlessly positive to the point of ignoring the discomfort of others.

As he followed her up a scrolling staircase to a never-ending row of brightly colored lounges and open seating areas, Dr. Williams’ eye caught a stenciled phrase across a long white wall:

Our mission: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

Throughout his five-and-a-half years at Google, Dr. Williams thought a lot about those words. In fact, towards the latter part of his tenure, assessing the impact of that brand promise began to consume his every waking moment. In between all-nighters launching the latest search algorithm, he began documenting his thoughts and collecting first-hand observations. Sometimes, while he was beta testing the latest release, he would add a quick filter to the code, allowing him to see searches related to a certain topic, say, relationships.

how do I know if I love my husband
is my wife cheating
jealous of boyfriends ex
should we move in together
feel insecure in my relationship
spice up marriage
how long to date before engaged

After doing this a number of times, Dr. Williams began to ask himself an intriguing question: while insecurity, jealousy, fear of commitment and a desire for connection are timeless human experiences, to what extent do they exist a priori—addressed and encouraged by the internet but in existence with or without it?

It had been a long time since he expressed his point of view on this subject, and he asked himself what good he was within the four walls of a tech company, one of 20,000 employees, silent on such a crucial sociological topic. So one late summer evening, sitting on a bench in the Googleplex park, he decided to leave the ranks and focus his energies on researching internet impact. Just several days later, filled with renewed energy, he penned an article that was published soon after in a fairly well-read online technology magazine.

“One of the things that is most unfortunate about such a powerful company as Google is that it insists on pretending it isn’t so powerful. In fact, internal rhetoric is almost suspiciously hyper-focused on the company being an information resource. But no one ever mentions the impact that online searching has had on us as a culture, how it has actually changed who we are.  Now, it seems, the uniqueness of human needs and desires not only drives the increasing specificity and frequency of searches but that the searches also then deepen human needs and desires—in many cases, to the point of anxiety. And, perhaps more important, the internet appears to be used most heavily when human conversation and connection are most needed. Based on this, I would assert that we have created a web that functions as a sort of virtual “hair of the dog,” providing temporary relief from self-induced pain but only prolonging the need for another quick fix.

Unfortunately, the article seemed to fall on deaf ears, outside of a few user comments and a form letter from Google’s legal department. Once again, Dr. Williams was left wondering what to do next.

But a few weeks into his unemployment, Dr. Williams caught the attention of Dr. Paul Gilster, who had published the controversial but seminal work Digital Literacy, which Dr. Williams had read during college. In fact, Dr. Williams’ thesis topic was inspired by the opening line of Dr. Gilster’s book:

“How can you beat a path to the world’s door when the path is charted, catalogued, and can be discovered with a click of a mouse?”

So, with Dr. Gilster as his formative academic influence, Dr. Williams was in disbelief when he opened his inbox and saw an email from the man himself.

Dear Dr. Williams,

I applaud you for taking on such an important subject matter as the sociology of the internet. I have long believed that online behavior can predict and explain things about where we are as a human race, so needless to say, I don’t find your work controversial or out of place in an accepted sociological framework. In fact, I think it’s exactly what we should be talking about in the academy. That said, I would remind you that there are essential human needs—love, acceptance, safety—that existed before this form of communication. Our job as scholars of society is to determine exactly how the proliferation of internet culture has impacted these needs. I know it can be done, but it’s a more complex assignment than it seems. Let me know how I can help.

Sincerely,
Dr. Gilster

Dr. Williams responded almost immediately.

Dr. Gilster–

Thank you sincerely for your email. I have felt a bit like a lone wolf at times, so your encouragement goes a long way. Your point about core human qualities existing a priori is well taken; I do believe that turning to the internet to gain security and safety may simply cause more anxiety, and my hope is to prove out that theory in some upcoming research. Thank you also for your offer to help. I’m not sure what, if anything, I need right now, but I will certainly let you know.

–Mark

Dr. Williams stood up from the computer and poured himself a glass of Scotch. There was a long road ahead, but it felt good to be understood.

******************************************************************

Over the next 3 years, the two continued to communicate via email, but the frequency slowly decreased over time. Dr. Williams grew a bit tired of Dr. Gilster continuing to invite him to various industry or networking events; he thought he had made it clear that he got nothing from them and began to resent the repetitive gesture. Plus, he had gained the necessary funding for his research study, which was now well underway, and he believed he would soon be in a place where he could gain wider critical approval for his ideas—without having to shake hands and take names.

One day in early 2016, Dr. Williams was in his apartment, reviewing a set of searches related to medical problems. The specificity was astonishing (most of the searches were at least five keywords long), but what surprised him most was the timing (searches during the day, when doctor’s offices were open, were the most prevalent) and the escalation of searches from the benign (“scratchy throat”) to the fatalistic (“do I have stage 4 larynx cancer”). Usually, the self-diagnosis sites were sandwiched somewhere in between, prolonging the journey, giving answers and non-answers all at the same time.

This was some of the best evidence he had captured so far to demonstrate the modern human’s futile dependence on technology to resolve complexity or substitute for human conversation; he was making progress, he thought, but his focus was interrupted by his cell phone ringing. Surprisingly, it wasn’t his mother, calling (as she always did) to force positivity down his throat while subtly expressing concern for his social life. Instead, it was Dr. Gilster. Dr. Williams hesitated a bit in picking up; he suddenly realized that after all this time, the two of them had never spoken on the phone.

He cleared his throat before speaking, though; he didn’t want his esteemed peer to know he was nervous. “Well, hello there, Dr. Gilster. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Well, Dr. Williams, I’m probably just wasting my time here, but I just found out about a conference speaking opportunity and think you’d be a great fit. I know you’re probably going to say no, but let me remind you of how this all started. It was about you and your unwavering desire to promote a new way of thinking.” His voice on the other end was friendly, persuasive, comforting. Could this really be someone who was controversial in his academic circle?

Dr. Williams wasn’t really sure why, but he said yes. For the first time, it was easier than saying no.

A few months later, he flew to Arizona for the conference. The trip was short but punctuated with doubts. That night, the evening before the presentation, he stopped by a networking happy hour at a hotel near the convention center. Dr. Gilster greeted him warmly and brought him over to a group of professors from across the country. He introduced him to everyone, including Professor Lisa Alvarez, a professor of gender studies at Columbia.

“I really am impressed by your courage to take on such an important issue without significant backing from your peers,” she said seriously. Her dark eyes conveyed little emotion, but her tone was impressively self-assured. “I have spent a lot of time researching the intersection of technology and female body image, and as a feminist scholar, I have encountered much that is alarming.”

Professor Williams nodded. Women like Professor Alvarez left him speechless like most women did, but for once, he didn’t resent her for it.

“The academic world needs more dialogue about the role of internet technology,” she continued, “and I speak for others when I say that your work is seminal to that ongoing conversation.” She placed her hand on the crook of Dr. Williams’ elbow. It was a light touch, but he felt something stir inside of him. He was initially surprised by his semi arousal, but then let his mind relax. After all, she was an academic with focus and discipline; she wasn’t like other women.

He was about to get up the courage to ask if she wanted to get another drink at the bar when his phone rang. It was his mother. He declined the call, but she immediately dialed him again, so he reluctantly excused himself and stepped out onto the patio. Near him, a wall of water spilled over a wall of decorative rocks; it was just as loud as the bar chatter.

“Mark,” his mother exclaimed. “Where are you? It’s so loud! Are you on a date? See, isn’t it just great to be out socializing?”

When he opened the French doors and stepped back into the bar lounge, he struggled to relocate the group of people he had been talking to. Then, he saw three of the professors heading towards the main door. As they moved, they revealed Professor Alvarez and Dr. Gilster, eyes locked in conversation. She was smiling for the first time the whole night. He had his hand on the indented part of her waist.

He went back to his room as swiftly as he could and without thinking, pulled out his computer. After a few strokes of the keyboard unlocking the protective layers of programming, he was in. And there she was. Her name was Emily Johnson, aka “Cassie J.” A beautiful, smiling blonde in a power suit. On a dating site under the username “Techgal2000.” Posting on Instagram in a Catwoman suit for Halloween. In a Google sweatshirt for “Throwback Thursday.” He studied her face intently, realizing he knew her. It didn’t take him much longer to realize she had been his first interaction at Google. Sure, she had been friendly when he first interviewed, but once he started, he only saw her once. They were both standing in line for made-to-order sushi. He was going to say hi, but she avoided his gaze.

So here they were again. But this time, she was at his disposal. And he knew more, knew the things that made her complex. Made her vulnerable.

Soon, 83 minutes had passed, and Dr. Williams’ desktop was covered in thumbnail images of Emily, so tiny that they were practically indiscernible. He finally stumbled into bed, moved to action only by the fact that he had his first conference presentation the next day. He wished he could get out of it, but it was too late.

The next morning, after a bitter cup of coffee made in his room’s single-serve machine, he walked across the street to the conference and made his way to Hall 6A. A digital display at the door indicated the sessions for that day:

9am, “Ethnographies, Storytelling and the New Community,” Professor Albert Hweng
11am, “The Endless Search: The Role of a Search Engine Society on Anxiety and Personality Disorders,” Dr. Mark Williams
1pm, “’Am I Fat?’: The Impact of Modern Media on Female Well-Being,” Professor Lisa Alvarez
2pm, “The Millennial Male: Autonomy, Differentiation and the Economies of Sexuality,” Dr. Robert Jacobs
3pm, “Is Academia Still Relevant? Sociological Discourses in an Information Age,” Dr. Tom Gilster

He entered the room, adjusting slowly to the artificial lighting and gaudy carpeting. A few chairs were occupied with scholarly-looking types, most glued to their iPads and laptops. As he waited his turn to present, he looked down at the pictures of Emily he had saved on his phone. In one of them, she was looking directly at him. He felt both courageous and alone.

It was his turn to approach the podium. Once he started speaking, shuffling the note cards in front him, he looked out into the audience. Professor Alvarez and Dr. Gilster were both nowhere to be found.

 

Christine Jacobson, a strategic planner at an advertising agency and a creative writing student, recently moved to Queens from the Southwest.