New Feelings Ungoogleability

I’ve come to view the internet as the intelligence that watches me — and watches with me — until it suddenly doesn’t

NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. Read the other installments here

I was walking down the street when it crossed my mind to wonder if my grandmother had ever had a nose job, and I thought, I’ll google it when I get home. A nanosecond later, I felt a flicker of fear.

To say that I thought I would google it is slightly disingenuous — it wasn’t a thought so much as a reflex, like reaching for something in the kitchen that’s usually kept in the same place. It’s the way people talk about the death of a loved one — picking up the phone to call them before realizing the outside world can be bare of something that lives with intensity in the mind. Coming up on a limit to the internet’s knowledge was an almost physical shock — the bottom fell out of my sense of narrative continuity, of being in a recorded universe. In that moment I realized I’d been thinking of the internet as an omniscient narrator.

When I realize the internet doesn’t know her, I remember that the internet doesn’t know what’s important to me

On the Australian comedy Please Like Me, after the main character’s mother commits suicide, he tells his therapist, “I googled ‘why did mum kill herself?’ but it just told me why other mums killed themselves and now it keeps trying to sell me a new mum.” I came home and tried googling, “Did Grandma Judi get a nose job?” I got a Pinterest page of someone named Judy’s before and after photos, a Daily Mail article about how the demand for nose jobs in Iran is seven times higher than anywhere else, and an article about how to reduce snoring.

If my grandmother had lived long enough to have a Facebook account, the internet might be able to tell me whether she’d ever had cosmetic surgery. She might have posted photos from her youth in Montreal, and her later life in Rio de Janeiro. As it is, her life was far less documented than mine, even though she was a much more interesting person. When I realize the internet doesn’t know her, I remember that the internet doesn’t know what’s important to me.

Rationally, I know the internet isn’t, in fact, conscious; no one has misled me on this point. My sense of an omniscient watcher whose attention gives narrative meaning to my time on Earth predates the internet. Semiconsciously, I picture everything from this fleeting life being somehow preserved. In an urn in a white marble hall there are scrolls inscribed with the story of everything that’s ever happened in the world at large, but more specifically as it relates to me. In casual conversation, when I say, “Just for the record,” this is what I mean, and I’m saying it as a formality because everything is on the record: Transcripts of conversations between my third-grade teacher and the school janitor. A diagram showing how Stonehenge was built, with my parents’ visit in the 1970s marked on the timeline. In another urn, all the physical world as it was on every day since the universe began. The cardboard suitcase my mother brought to Canada, the handkerchief Socrates blew his nose on.

In casual conversation, when I say, “Just for the record,” this is what I mean, and I’m saying it as a formality because everything is on the record

In this fantasy, I don’t picture an archivist. but the archive itself seems semi-conscious — there’s a Magician’s Apprentice flair to the way the scrolls unfurl on the lectern. The seemingly vacant hall where the records are kept knows me and has predicted which questions I will need answered. The information there is not inert — it organizes itself around me so that I am elevated rather than dwarfed by the mass of all that is.

This sounds, of course, like a conception of God. My inherited cultural notion of a transcendent intelligence that sees and knows me — maybe even loves me — has merged with a technological reality that has come to assume many of the same powers. I’ve come to view the internet as the greater mind that watches me, watches with me and for me.

Platform and search-engine designers have done everything in their power to foster this illusion through personalization. My search results are shaped by algorithms that take my search history into account, forming a picture of what I want to know. My social media accounts invite me to upload my friendships and document my face over time. My phone knows which city I’m in and shows everything in relation to the pulsing blue dot of me. I can find out a shocking amount from Google — so shocking that I forget to be amazed. Of course Google can tell me how to make potato salad for 120 people. Of course I can find out who played Detective Sergeant Trotter in the first-ever stage production of The Mousetrap (it was Richard Attenborough). Over the years, this preternatural fluency with history, art, politics, culture, and science has come to seem natural. Everything is discoverable — assembled, in fact, for me to discover.

But the paradox of seeming omniscience is that it isn’t omniscience. Coming up against Google’s limits so easily — with a simple question about an event (or non-event) in living memory — I felt as if I’d stumbled off the edge of the map in Borges’ 1946 story, “On Exactitude in Science,” where in a quest for precision, the empire’s maps got larger and larger until, eventually, cartographers introduced a map with a 1:1 ratio — it covered the entire surface of the empire. In my day-to day life, I walk around mistaking the map for the world.

My shock was one of abandonment. I realized that though the internet possesses many facts about me, it doesn’t actually know who I am at all. I was brought up in a secular household, so I never thought I had a faith to lose. The fact that I have allowed the illusion of the internet’s regard for me to seep so deeply into my unconscious mind makes me nervous. Like any belief system, it only becomes visible when it breaks down.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.