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The Google trap

We use it almost unconsciously when we want to search for something on the Internet. It could be something as innocuous as the latest gossip on Angeline Jolie or Brad Pitt or something as important as doing a background search on someone who has applied for a job.

tech reviews Updated: Oct 10, 2009 19:07 IST
seema_ht@rediffmail.com

One of my friends, who is in the luxury business, spends about half his time on the road, living out of suitcases in some glitzy hotel or the other. It sounds glamorous, I know, but he maintains that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. His entire time goes in meetings, the cities pass by in a blur and most times he has no idea where he is on that particular day.

But after a hard day at work, he likes to reward himself with a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant – you know the kind that you can’t get into for love or money. So, how does he manage to land a reservation nine times out of ten? Simple. He calls up, leaves his name and his booking request, and asks the staff to Google him. He has found that once they log that he is a luxury hot-shot, there is no trouble getting the best table in the house, even at a day’s notice.

It’s a great strategy, of course, but it wouldn’t necessarily work for all of us. After all, not everyone’s name throws up many thousands of hits in a Google search. And how do we know this? Because at one time or another, every one of us has given in to the shameful impulse to Google ourselves.

Such is the popularity of this little recreational activity that Google is probably one of the few companies since Hoover whose name has become a verb in the English language. We use it almost unconsciously when we want to search for something on the Internet. It could be something as innocuous as the latest gossip on Angeline Jolie or Brad Pitt or something as important as doing a background search on someone who has applied for a job. Whatever we want to know about whichever subject, we simply Google it.

There’s even a phrase that’s evolved to describe those of us who are so dependent on Google for all our research. Old-fashioned academics – you know the kinds who actually read books and spend time in libraries painstakingly looking up references – have dubbed us the White Bread Generation (WBG). The phrase was coined by media studies professor Tara Brabazon in the UK, who bans her own students from using Google because it is like white bread: filling but without any nutritional content.

Academics like Brabazon fear that most students these days don’t bother with doing any reading at all (unless it is on the Internet). They have probably never set foot in a library. All their research is conducted on the Net. Google is their weapon of choice and Wikipedia their Holy Grail, the fount of all wisdom. It doesn’t matter to the WBG that most Wikipedia entries are written and re-written and then re-re-written by people who are not necessarily the best minds in the business. It is of no consequence to them that some of the information regurgitated by Google is suspect at best and wrong at worst. No, as far as they are concerned, if you can Google it, then it must be true. So the term White Bread seems particularly apt – for the generation that is not interested in the meat of the matter.

Journalists like me are perhaps more guilty than most. For most of us, Google has become synonymous with research. And this means that once an erroneous bit of information has been fed through Google, it takes on a life of its own, being repeated over and over again until it begins to acquire a certain authenticity. As the old Nazi saying goes, if you repeat a lie often enough, it begins to seem like the truth.

Which perhaps goes some way in explaining why Google has become so important in our lives. We know that it will be the first port of call when anyone wants to find out anything about us. So, we try and make sure that all the Google entries about us can pass muster if they are being read by putative partners (romantic and otherwise), potential employers or just friends and family. Only, there’s no good way to do that. Once someone has written anything about you and posted it on the Net, well, then you can be sure it’s going to pop up for ever more every time someone types your name into the search engine.

All you can really do is control the kind of information you put out about yourself. We’ve all heard nightmare stories about people being fired because their Facebook photos showed them doing drugs or because they were blogging about their bosses and places of work. And all of it was duly flagged up on Google because they never really understood how the privacy settings work. Remember the newly-appointed MI6 chief in the UK, Sir John Sawers, who nearly lost his job because his wife posted pictures of their house and kids and their holidays on Facebook for the world to see?

See, when it comes to Google, a little discretion goes a long way. Except for us journos, who simply have to live with the fact that nothing we write today will be forgotten tomorrow. No, it will live on forever in cyberspace, coming right back up (in Google searches) to bite us in the butt.