The Things They Googled: What Was There Before Google?

Marion Winik ponders the world before Google, the endless availability of information, and the necessity of turning to older search engines.

  • Symbol Pyramid
    After all that searching and finding, all the slapped foreheads and the ahas, there was still something missing.
    Photo By Hill

  • Symbol Pyramid

If they were young, they googled the things they didn’t know. Some were things they were supposed to know, like the habits of the hammerhead shark. The perfect squares under a hundred, the phrase “rite of passage.” When they got bored, they googled images of peace signs, photographs of rainbows, a video of a girl singing about Friday, and another of a baby laughing and laughing. They googled Anne Hathaway. If they were boys, they googled how to build a bomb. If they could get on the computer when their parents weren’t home they googled things they weren’t supposed to know, things like “sodomy” and “lesbian.” Then they cleared the search history and googled “hammerhead shark.”

If they were old, they googled the things they had forgotten: names of actors and movies and hurricanes, old sports scores, the vice president under Carter, the ingredients in a Manhattan, the hours of the liquor store, “liquor stores open Sunday,” directions. They googled things that had escaped them: the definition of feckless, a synonym for regime, most of the answers to the Sunday crossword puzzle. They googled remedies for burns and bee stings.

If they were lonely, they googled “sex.” They googled “sex xxx.” They googled long-lost lab partners, old boyfriends, their ex-husband’s new girlfriend. They googled cute pictures of baby koalas. They googled the word lonely. They googled “distended stomach” “nosebleed that won’t stop” “numbness” “insomnia” and “cancer symptoms.”

The things they googled were determined by forgetfulness, by need, by desire, by curiosity, and by the endless availability of information. In fact, there was no point in remembering anything except how to google. They didn’t even have to remember what they were googling: As soon as they’d typed “When does g—,” just that much, Google already knew the question was when Glee Season Three would begin. When they googled “pleonism,” Google quietly looked up pleonasm. Google never made them feel bad about not knowing.

So they googled how to lose weight and pictures of psoriasis and checklists for diagnosing attention-deficit disorder. If they were pregnant, there was no end to their googling. Others googled when it would rain and how much it would rain and when to plant their gardens. They googled the tides and the seasons. They googled the times of sunrise and sunset. They googled births and deaths. They googled themselves, which was sometimes unsettling, turning up Boston Marathon times and class reunions and even obituaries not their own.

How did they live before Google, they wondered. How did anyone know anything? How did anyone remember, while driving through Mohntown, Pennsylvania, the name of the young blond actress in the movie Witness who was from that town?

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