Dispatches | March 15, 2005

[By Liz Langemak]

There were two points during the writing of this article when it struck me that I was truly living in a postmodern world:

(1) When I typed the word “Google” into the Google search engine.

(2) When Google’s homepage defined its mission as “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” because “a lot of the world’s information isn’t yet online.”

To say that “a lot of the world’s information isn’t yet online” seems to me like a bit of an understatement. Yet, in all fairness, the idea that perhaps Google is capable of organizing and presenting us with this information doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

After all, what Google has quite recently done for the Internet is what over two hundred years of presidents have been unable to do for the oval office: make it an acceptable, credible source of information. In the space of only a few years, Google had evolved away from a means of “researching” the names of people you know late at night while mildly intoxicated and into a reasonable tool for use in actual, academic research.

This began to dawn on me last year as not just one, but several professors suggested that I use the world’s most popular search engine for research in their classes. While I’ll admit that this initially struck me as odd, it’s becoming more and more a feasible proposition: while the Internet has always been a good place to brainstorm in the pre-proof stages of one’s research, new Google functions such as Google Scholar and Google Print are proposing changes to this paradigm.

Google Scholar advertises itself as giving browsers the chance to “search specifically for scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports from all broad areas of research.” The results then appear in order of relevance to the original search terms, supplying the researcher with a list of both full-text online citations and older publications that appear only in actual printed books.

Google Print is being touted as Google’s newest innovation, though the upshot of what it provides has also been available through Amazon.com’s “Search Inside the Book” tool for several years. Both allow you to virtually “page” through sections of books whose contents have been scanned and placed online, both offer you a link to click to buy the book, and both have paired with major publishing companies to make this function available. Yet Print differs in two main aspects: first, unlike Amazon, Google is not a book seller, and second, Google is also under contract with the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, Oxford University and the New York Public Library to scan and make their collections available in digital format

Having come of age in a time when every college syllabus I was handed listed “the Internet” as “a very, very bad idea” for use in research, I’m excited about and interested in these new options. And not only for myself but for my students, who all increasingly seem to require a modem and virus protection for any project I assign them. But despite all these improvements, the darker side of the Internet remains, even within Google’s own kingdom.

Take Google Answers, for example, with its motto, “Ask a question. Set your price. Get your answer,” and its assurance that “more than 500 carefully screened Researchers are ready to answer your question for as little as $2.50 — usually within 24 hours.” Wow. That’s tempting, I thought, I’d sure like to know what sort of innovative new research the American people are interested in.

And while it’s true that a fair number of people desire answers to questions such as, “How would one go about predicting what will happen to an organic substance once it reaches the liver?” (a question worth $4.50) most people want answers to more pressing questions, like “Is my husband a homosexual?” (only worth $2.00, apparently) and “How many necrophiliacs are there in America? In the world? How many of them are employed at mortuaries?” (also in the $4.00 range) and, my personal favorite, “How can I get back some clothes from someone I once considered a friend?” ($2.00).

So what, exactly, qualifies as information? Google’s take on the subject seems to be that information is the answer to any question that anybody might ask. The majority of the questions being asked on Google Answers are so personal that the program might well be called “Dear Google” instead. Yet many of the (I assume, underpaid) researchers persist, even, in one case, researching instructions for an abused women to follow out on her own in leaving her relationship.

Where, then, are the lines now drawn between ideas and information? Between facts and opinions? When did the “answer” to a question posed in a research format become more or less arbitrary?

I’d submit that Google represents the divided-self mentality of the Internet, with the Scholar and Print functions playing toward the good side and Answers representing the unknown and untamed. Together—as Google is completely aware of itself as a pure, unfiltered source of information—they form a postmodern monster.

Just as art objects that are aware of themselves as art can be called postmodern, it would seem that the same thing can be said of information. To rip off the old adage, information no longer seems to exist for its own sake. But then, who does it exist for? For ours? Or Google’s?