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Because of a childhood obsession with illustration and E.C. Comics, I carry with me the memory of the names and the styles of the five artists who illustrated the first issue of Mad Magazine in 1952 (actually a comic book at the time). I asked Google if it knew as much as I do.
“Mais oui, bon ami! [Google also speaks French]: The five are Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and John Severin. Ask me something difficult, simple denizen of the meat world.”
“Um, OK, Google. What are the figures on Munich’s Rathaus-Glockenspiel?”
“I know you’re easily bored, simple one, so I won’t describe all thirty-two of the life-sized figures, but the ones on the bottom are barrel makers dancing the traditional Cooper’s Dance. Are you happy now?”
That’s what Google would be like if it were human. It knows so much more than us that it would undoubtedly be haughty in its responses.
OK, let’s get serious. Perhaps you are writing a book on the rise and fall of Christianity in Israel and you need to know the Christian orders that control the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City. In pre-search engine days, you had to drive to your local library, search the card catalogue to see if it had a book or periodical that dealt with the subject, go to the stacks, try to find the book, and flip through the index, if it had one, or pages if it didn’t.
Now with Google, you can stay home and type these words into the search box: “six orders of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” In two seconds (I timed it), up pops, on the first page, a reference work that, with one click, provides you with your answer: Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox. In two forken seconds.
If that doesn’t amaze you, you’re probably under the age of 40 and all excited, right down to the tingle in your lower leg, by Joe Biden’s candidacy.
In 1977, I wrote an article for Fine Woodworking about how to make a woodwind instrument called a flageolet. Just now I Googled my article. Google not only found the article, but it also found a description of the article, written some years later, in the middle of Jim Richey’s 602-page book, Methods of Work. That is one peripatetic web crawler!
Search engines can do what no other research source in history could do. For the past few months, I’ve had a phrase in my mind, “ten years before the flood.” I had no idea where that came from. (I used to teach literature, so I have a jumble of literary images lying about willy-nilly in my mind.) So I Googled the words and discovered that they appear in Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. The words aren’t even much of a quote, not even close to being a sentence, hardly even an image. Just a lowly phrase. Is there anything that Google can’t find?
To check to see if that was merely an aberration, I came up with another literary image, one I was familiar with. This time I purposely misquoted the sentence to make it hard on Google. Here’s the original: “The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.” And here’s what I typed into the Google box: “Despite his feathers, the owl was really cold.” Google took me to the right place, John Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes, and offered up the exact words as they appear in the poem. Incroyable! (I don’t know French, but I do know how to look up French words — in Google, of course.)
In 1970, I did research for my Ph.D dissertation by spending untold hours in the bowels of the University of Utah library, where I read mostly forgotten Restoration comedies (most of which appeared only on microfiche) and a few critical essays on those comedies. If I wasn’t in the basement, I was at the main desk filling out forms for inter-library loans for books and original copies of certain plays that were not available at the University library. It was a laborious process.
Nowadays, using Google, I could write a better version of that dissertation in a tenth of the time and a thousand miles distant from any library. The scholarly world has been digitized and is now available to anyone with, let’s say, a small iPad and a search engine. For copies of the plays themselves, Google will point you to a variety of ways of retrieving the primary texts, from Project Gutenberg (which has now digitized 6,448 books, all free) to the Internet Archive, to the Poetry Foundation. I just Googled William Congreve’s Restoration comedy of manners, The Way of the World. In five seconds, I had a copy of the five-act play on my iPad.
A colleague and I used to write textbooks on writing, rhetoric in particular, usually combined with lessons on library research. That was, oh, about thirty years ago. In our books, the readers could find all kinds of helpful information on the card catalogue (ah, the pleasures of the Dewey Decimal System) and how to write effectively about their research. Largely because of Google, our books are now so dated that they’re hardly worth the energy it would take to grind them up for pulp.
After I wrote that last sentence, I became curious about the fate of these texts, so I Googled my name. Three of our texts came up, now located in an internet bargain bin called Thriftbooks. One of our texts that originally sold for $45.11 now sells for $4.99. (That price drop mirrors the arc of my life.). Since this is a research textbook, it’s hard to see why anyone would buy it. It barely mentions the Internet and Google is years into the future.
So there you have it. Search engines have opened a passageway to a world of knowledge and art for kings and peasants. We’re living in an amazing world, folks.
Postscript: Mrs. @She is of the opinion that the only reason people read my posts is the expectation that I will post a photo of Bob the dog.
Although it is true that the number of Likes for my posts dropped precipitously at the same time that I stopped including photos of Bob, I believe that the relationship between the two events to be merely coincidental, not causal. I continue to believe that I’m loved for myself and not for Bob the dog.
I will not pander!