Some people go running or meditate; they recite mantras or affirmations, carry pictures of the saints. My brother used to keep one of those mini Zen rock gardens in his room as a teenager, turning over his thoughts as he raked the sand back and forth. But for me, there’s nothing like pouring anxious feelings into an empty Google search bar, posing questions too big for any one person to answer.
Some questions I’ve asked Google, between the ages of 11 and 26, in roughly chronological order:
- Why did my cat die?
- How do I talk to people?
- Why don’t my parents understand me?
- Who shot JFK?
- Do I have a brain tumor?
- Why isn’t love enough?
- Will I ever stop grieving?
- Why are there seasons?
- Why do cats purr?
- How do I know what I’m worth?
- Will I ever be a good writer?
- Should I be studying philosophy?
- Why was Nietzsche such an asshole?
- Why do people kill themselves?
- How large is the blast radius of a nuclear bomb?
- Does anyone’s family ever change?
- What is the difference between guilt and shame?
- Why did Elvis meet Nixon?
- How do I let go of anger?
- What if I hate my job?
- Why are avocados so weird?
- Am I having a quarter-life crisis?
- How deep is the deepest part of the ocean?
- Why can’t I want what I’m supposed to want?
- How many times does a blue whale’s heart beat per hour?
This searching is the only prayerful thing I do, though I admit that as a form of prayer, Google search is problematic. Christianity emphasizes that the purpose of prayer is not to find answers, assuage existential anxiety, or to get things for ourselves. Instead, it’s a means of knowing God, something closer to surrender. Through knowing and accepting God, we can begin to know and be at peace ourselves.
But maybe Google isn’t Christian; maybe it’s Buddhist. Everyone in the internet-connected world is familiar with Google’s uncluttered homepage: a single, rectangular search field with two buttons underneath, fixed in the middle of a white screen. Google’s colorful logo—originally designed to evoke toy building blocks—appears above the bar. The word “search” appears only once on the page, in the left button below the search field, though you can find it again by clicking on the square “app grid” button at top right, a feature added in 2013. Google has been praised for the minimalism of its homepage since its inception.
The Google homepage has been called “Zen-like” more times than are worth counting, though the last time I entered the Google search query “google zen-like homepage” it returned 13.4 million results. When I Googled “what is Zen,” I got this list in my third result:
- Zen is nothing and yet everything.
- Zen is both empty and full.
- Zen encompasses all and is encompassed by all.
- Zen is the beginning and the end.
Bodhidharma, a fifth-century Buddhist monk, described Zen as a “direct pointing” to the mind and heart. He said it’s a practice of studying the mind and seeing into one’s nature. You sit, not expecting enlightenment to strike, but in concentration, waiting for things to be revealed to you over time.
This is how Google works: instead of giving you search results based on how many times your search query appears on a given website, it crawls the internet to determine how many times sites relevant to your search query are linked to other relevant sites. Then it ranks the sites and lays them out in order. This algorithmic ranking and delivery of the most relevant results is called “search quality.” Udi Manber, a former vice president of engineering at Google, described the still-highly-guarded specifics of the algorithm as the company’s “crown jewels.” Indeed, one of the most famous parts of Google’s ranking algorithm is PageRank, the rating system developed by Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were Stanford PhD students.
I didn’t know any of this, despite having used Google since the company’s incorporation in 1998. I was 11 years old then. I can’t remember a time when searching for “university” on an early search engine such as AltaVista delivered the Oregon Center for Optics homepage as the first result, though apparently that’s what happened in the mid-1990s. And although the summer Olympics were held that year, searching for “Olympics” on AltaVista returned mostly spam.
Larry Page once described the perfect search engine as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” His description sounds kind of touchy-feely—like the friend or partner who intuitively knows what to say to you when you’re upset. But in fact, what makes Google feel this way are two highly technical components.
The first is Google’s reliance on natural language, the term of art for searching based on human speech rather than computer commands. Squarely in the realm of artificial intelligence, natural language is why you can enter “hot dog” as a search query and Google can understand that you mean the open compound word and food item, rather than a perspiring poodle. Google is revolutionary in that its interpretive process is continually refined through tracking its user queries, which provide an enormous sample of how people speak naturally. Google historian Steven Levy writes, “Google came to see that instant [user] feedback as the basis of an artificial intelligence learning mechanism.” In other words, the more we search, the more Google learns to talk and think like us. It draws ever closer to always knowing exactly what we mean and what we’re looking for.
This progression was most visible with Google Instant, the 2010 search enhancement that predicted what your search query would be and displayed search results as you typed. Clicking “search” was made unnecessary. Google’s official press release from that time explained that the thinking behind Google Instant was that people read faster than they type. Whole seconds were saved by letting users scan instant search results so they could refine their queries on the fly, rather than having to retype them. But the actual feeling of using Google Instant was that the search engine was thinking faster than me; before I could even fully think of how to ask my question, it understood and was answering.
“There is a psychic element,” then-Google vice president Marissa Mayer told a press conference, “because we can predict what you are about to search on in real time.” After seven years, Google did away with Instant in July 2017, stating that the feature is less fluid for mobile searchers. Still, auto-complete results show up in a drop-down menu below the search bar, drawing on decades of logged language. Even without Instant, Google still phrases my queries better than I could (and in milliseconds). It’s me without the clumsiness of my communication.
The second technical component is the way Google returns search results with more information (“gives you back exactly what you want,” in Page’s words). In earlier search engines, results were returned based on how many times your query appeared on a webpage. But the expansion of the internet presented a problem: maintaining search quality when analyzing millions of websites becomes difficult with no way to determine relevance. But since Google search exploits the link structure of the internet, more websites simply means improved search quality. New websites supply more links, giving Google more clues to determine a particular website’s relevance to your search query.
And the more the web expands, the more complex and dynamic the portrait of user behavior becomes. Google finds failures in its ranking algorithm and then works to correct them. The more we search, the more Google can know about us. Google is recursive, circular. Empty and full, all-encompassing. Google was designed to be “the ultimate learning machine.”
I submit that the internet is the greatest human achievement—the integrated whole of human knowledge. In the mere fact of its integration, it is superhuman, beyond any one of us and inaccessible in its entirety. We need a medium to reach across the digital ether and speak to it. This is where Google comes in.
Like an oracle, Google can access and interpret the world beyond, though it is still essentially of this one. To me, the internet feels infinite, inscrutable, but the experience of coming to Google is still individual, intensely personal. Rather than being a superhuman artificial intelligence, what if Google is simply more human than all of us—imbued with all our semantics and our behavior and our private inquiries and our thoughts? It has learned to know us exactly as we try to know ourselves. Disembodied, it is the questioning impulse itself. I love it and hate it for precisely this reason.
The word “search” originated in the twelfth century, from the French cerchier meaning “to search.” It’s one of those words whose etymology can be slightly frustrating, because its place in language is apparently so singular and essential, its history is just iterations of the word itself. But “search” has its root in the Latin circare, to “go about, wander, or traverse” and circus, ring or circle. There is something recursive about it: to search, one goes round and round.
Technically, I have search in my email. I have search on my desktop. I have search in my pocket on my smartphone. I carry it with me; I shouldn’t need to search for it at all. But here I am, searching.
My favorite bit by the comedian Louis C.K. is about how children are always asking questions. He starts by admitting that before he became a father he used to judge parents for their reticence to answer their children’s questions. He recalls watching a parent shut a kid down in a McDonald’s, telling him to just keep quiet and eat his damn french fries. But why not answer questions, C.K. asks his audience sarcastically, and expose your children to many wonders of the world?
“You can’t answer a kid’s question!” C.K. explodes. “They don’t accept any answer! A kid never goes, ‘Oh, thanks, I get it.’ They just keep coming, more questions: why why why, until you don’t even know who the fuck you are anymore at the end of the conversation. It’s an insane deconstruction!”
A conversation that begins with his daughter asking why she can’t go outside because it’s raining spirals out of control into analyzing why we’re here and C.K.’s admission that we’re alone in the universe.
He says, “At the end it’s like:
Well, because some things are and some things are not.
Well, because things that are not can’t be!
Because then nothing wouldn’t be! You can’t have fucking nothing isn’t—everything is!!”
It’s possible that I never outgrew this phase of life. I’ve always loved asking questions, especially why questions. I was raised in a largely secular family: my father a Reform Jew—the most liberal branch of Judaism that embraces the idea of a personal god—and my mother a lapsed Christian. In the abstract, at least, both my parents saw the value of religion, of engaging with something higher than yourself to find meaning and purpose. But both were also humanists and education researchers. Being a researcher, who lives and dies by the scientific method, comes with a built-in agnosticism and a low tolerance for woo-woo explanations. I’ve heard my father say that if something can’t be measured, it could just as easily not exist. Research was my parents’ chosen vehicle for making sense of the world, and they devoted their careers to answering difficult questions using it: Which students do better in school and why? Why did this or that social program not work? How do we judge the value of an education?
But science (and my parents) also acknowledge there are no definitive magic answers for us humans. Knowledge is gained only through deep thought and putting in hard work to arrive at the most plausible conclusion—and a plausible conclusion is as good as it gets. This is also a recurring religious lesson: aspire to godly knowledge at your own peril. Prometheus was sentenced to suffer for eternity; Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, made mortal. In asking for divine answers, Job only compounded his own misfortune by seeking divine answers. Scientific research is humble in its own way. It’s keenly aware of its human limits. My father’s email signature still reads: “In God we Trust, all others bring data.”
It’s possible this left me wanting. I believed in data of course, but they weren’t enough. When I was young, my parents got wise and gave me a tape recorder to talk into, to keep me entertained and eventually exhaust myself. Somewhere in their closets there are cassette tapes full of me rambling and counting, then asking what numbers are and how high they can go, then asking about infinity, and at some point, probably asking about God.
“You were also really into spreadsheets,” my dad tells me.
I guess no one was surprised when I decided to study philosophy in college. I thought: this is the place where all my questions will finally be answered. It’s an ancient discipline, after all. But searching for answers through philosophy turned out to have the same pitfalls as a six-year-old’s argument with Louie C.K. You could swap recordings of my class discussions on the metaphysics of Parmenides for C.K.’s whole routine, and you’d end up in the same place.
When—a little more than halfway through my degree—I first asked Google if I should be studying philosophy, the top results were pretty much what you’d expect. They remain unchanged today, in fact, and are all from university philosophy departments. You can tell they’ve tailored responses to all of their anticipated readers. For the college student with my pretensions: To study philosophy is to grapple with questions that have occupied humankind for millennia, in conversation with some of the greatest thinkers who have ever lived. For that student’s possibly nervous parents: the philosophy major helps students gain critical thinking skills. You’re majoring in thinking. For the career-minded: You will acquire analytical skills crucial for success in many different areas. And (as was oft-repeated in my own college philosophy department): Did you know philosophy majors consistently have the highest LSAT scores?
But when I clicked deeper through the results back then, I also turned up a bunch of online discussion boards full of other disillusioned philosophy students. We all echoed our departments’ boilerplate: I studied philosophy to find answers. But then, everyone agreed, all I found were more questions. The scary thing about studying philosophy, others had commented, was not that you don’t get your questions answered, but that you start to doubt the value of questions and answers at all. You start to see that knowledge, as you had conceived of it, is relative and mutable. Can it even be studied? We’d all begun our degrees searching for Truth, capital T, only to realize such a search is foolish and will get you laughed out of the room. Someone should tell you to get over it, eat your damn french fries.
When I first began writing about search, one of my roommates, Dave, was a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon is home to one of the top computer science programs in the world. Some of Google’s most important employees—pioneers of search and artificial intelligence—studied and taught there. Dave would tell you that one of his degrees is in computer science but he wasn’t technically part of the School of Computer Science; he was in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy, which is in spitting distance of computer science. Two of my other roommates, biomedical and civil engineers, loved to goad Dave and say that computer scientists aren’t really engineers.
Dave told me then, “I would define search as selective information delivery. Well, retrieval and delivery.”
When Dave and I first discussed search, he said a lot of things I couldn’t make sense of or put into context until I understood and internalized how Google works. He said one of the keys to searching is being able to quantifiably determine, à la Louie C.K., if something is or is not there. He said Google has gotten better at encoding people’s feelings and thoughts than it used to be. It’s moved beyond just being the most effective at matching up ones and zeros, and toward the idea of searching for concepts.
I told Dave that Sergey Brin said he wanted Google to be as smart as its user. “But I don’t think there’s any argument to be made against the idea that it’s smarter than me.”
“I think there’s a difference between being book smart and being wise.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, imagine you go to the biggest library in the world, and rather than use a card catalog, there’s a librarian with super speed. She can retrieve anything you want from the library almost instantly. Is she smarter than you? Or is she just really good at performing that one task, at doing what she was designed to do?”
Dave reminded me of one of the dimensions of my love for Google. That is: its ability to retrieve practical information in the exact instant that I need it. Things such as directions somewhere, where food is, which brand I should buy, what time an event starts. Sometimes my search history is not pretty. Sometimes it might make you wonder how I’ve survived thus far as an adult in civilized society (though I suspect I’m not alone in this).
Sometimes it looks like this (age 25):
- Blue whale
- Cat immunizations lasts how long
- Leftovers how long in fridge
- Wendy’s value menu
- Rice Krispie treats
- Arcadia Austin Shakespeare
- Valentines Day
- Luby’s restaurant hours
- Old Dominion University
Or this, from over spring break and at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (age 24):
- Barbarella dance club Austin
- Define: vertigo
- Hangover dizzy how is this possible
- Vodka drinks
- Jeremy Irons
- Athenian Grill restaurant
- Belmont happy hour
- Second Austin
There are times I see Google as a loving parent, leading me through the world. It (apparently) tends to me when I’m drunk, shepherds me from place to place and brings me safely home, tells me everything I want to know about whales—all without judgment, resentment, or even hesitation. It can tolerate endless questions. There are times I think I would be dead without it.
Dave asked me how we distinguish between smart and wise (an artificial intelligence question). I parroted Socrates: wisdom begins with self-knowledge.
Dave: “Google has no self-knowledge.”
“When you’re searching, you’re still searching all human content. Google isn’t generative. It can’t be.”
Despite Google’s seeming inertness, there’s still something appealing about the idea of having access to the whole of human content. It comforts me to know that it’s there, that I can call on it whenever I want. I can always pose the same tired questions—why we’re here or how the universe began—and know that whatever answer Google brings back is the best we’ve collectively come up with so far. Google alone can do this. It makes me hopeful. And it makes me feel less alone.
Me: “I know what you’re saying. Sometimes I ask Google questions I know it can’t answer. It just feels to me like such a benevolent God, trying to help and guide me.”
Dave: “I know, I anthropomorphize technology all the time.”
“You should ask it if you’re an engineer.”
“I actually asked it that the other day: ‘why am I not an engineer?’”
Nietzsche said the most tragically human impulse was to question. All philosophy, he posits—the endless slog toward truth—is a not-even-thinly-veiled attempt at religion, whose purpose is to provide some justification for our suffering. Truth as God. Truth seekers as pilgrims. And all of this vain searching denies life as it is—a constant flux and power struggle, nothing more. Searching for truth in that kind of world is a sad farce, which does nothing but diminish the spirit.
When Western philosophy inevitably fails me, I always circle back to Buddhism. Unlike my education in continental philosophy, with Eastern religions, I’m a dilettante—a stereotypical American who passingly wants to master stress management. And even at that, I’m pretty terrible. Being mindful in rush-hour traffic and visualizing myself as a flower are fine, but at the end of the day, I fail to meet the best-known Buddhist prerequisite: to leave all attachment at the door. To come to Buddhism searching for anything—truth, wisdom, inner peace, enlightenment—is the surest way never to attain any of those things. It’s a religion of nothingness, of emptying out, a process that begins when you stop wanting to be religious.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, a philosopher whom the Dalai Lama called “one of the greatest thinkers of the age,” says that if you deny the traditional approach of seeking truth, then you will find that you are no longer seeking. He writes, “That is the first thing to learn—not to seek. When you seek, you are really only window shopping.” In the same vein as Nietzsche, he repeatedly refers to truth as “a pathless land.”
A therapist once advised me, in the spirit of quelling my lifelong anxiety, to always return to my breath, in and out—a Zen Buddhist practice. Just this, just this, she said to repeat on the inhale and exhale, something I took as its own small prayer.
I thought this was mostly worthless at the time. For me, bouts of anxiety never feel like just this, but the opposite. They’re the intrusion of the whole incomprehensible world, which I feel ill-equipped to understand and then terrified to live in. I could pray for wisdom or a greater sense of inner peace—like the Serenity Prayer, to accept the things I cannot change. But I’ve also read that at bottom, anxious, questioning people harbor a secret wish for control. We want to make the world known and manageable. Isn’t this part of the reason why children ask questions?
I pose as if what I want is to earnestly search, to make some kind of digital pilgrimage, but that’s not really what I want. I don’t seek space for questions, to let them hang and maybe have things revealed to me. I don’t want to do the hard work of detachment or faith and acceptance. It is hard for me to see prayer as anything more than an outlet for my private melodrama. What I really want is instant gratification, answers on-demand.
I know all of these philosophers are right. I’m guilty of all their charges: I am a child, wanting easy answers, a god craver, mired in attachment and worldliness. A sinner. I feel constantly betrayed by my youth. I hate myself for seeking childish things—truth, meaning, the possibility of a loving god. For asking for these things from a mystical series of algorithms. But I want them still. Even though I can imagine Nietzsche, my therapist, the Dalai Lama, and every professor I’ve ever had—all shaking their heads, handing me a tape recorder.
The only time I did poorly on an English paper was writing five pages about Oedipus Rex. The assignment was simple, borderline cliché: identify what doomed Oedipus and analyze what makes the play a tragedy. I knew my teacher wanted me to write about hubris, to give the classic reading that in denying his own fate, Oedipus sealed it. Moral: Don’t mock the gods with your vanity.
But reading the play, I felt sorry for Oedipus. He’s a blowhard to be sure, harassing Tiresias the prophet and bullying everyone to get information. But what really drives him is a desire to learn the truth about his identity. It’s a universal need. And it’s a mission no one else in the play will take up, even though the health of the entire city of Thebes depends on it.
At one point in the play, Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife/mother—though the latter is yet to be revealed—implores him to drop his whole investigation. Oedipus says that he won’t do it, that not knowing the truth will only bring him more distress. “O you unhappy man!” Jocasta replies. “May you never find out who you really are!” Suspending Freudian analysis for a moment: this is his own parent, telling him to quash the question who am I?
Schopenhauer once wrote, in a letter to Goethe, that what makes “the philosopher” is “the courage to make a clean breast of it in the face of every question.” Schopenhauer compares the philosopher to Oedipus, who, “seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable inquiry, even though he divines the appalling horror that awaits him in the answer.” He adds, “But most of us carry in our hearts the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for God’s sake not to enquire further.” Nietzsche later mocked Schopenhauer for this false heroism, what he called a deeply misguided “will to truth.” It’s only vanity, Nietzsche says. Hubris.
In my paper, I took up Schopenhauer’s claim. I argued that truth-seeking was Oedipus’ tragic flaw. My teacher gave me a barely passing grade. “A closer reading would’ve revealed that it’s all hubris,” she commented. At the time, I was livid. Who wants to read about hubris over truth-seeking? But I’ve started to wonder if the two might be closer than I thought.
Some theorists argue that technology such as Google search will kill off the questioning impulse. Ray Kurzweil, for example, has popularized the concept of a technological singularity, when computers advance to a point of superintelligence such that their predictive capacities outstrip our own. A post-singularity world, he posits, will be full of technology that goes beyond the control of a single person, perhaps like the restless, yearning operating system in Spike Jonze’s movie Her. For my part, I imagine the singularity as Super Google. Right now, as Dave said, Google can access information, interpret it, but not “understand” it in a human way. But it’s arguably a fine distinction.
The writer Mike Thomsen compares this moment—Kurzweil predicts we’ll cross over around 2029—to when dogs separated themselves from wolves and became domesticated.
“Years from now,” Thomsen writes in The New Inquiry, “what we think of as a computer will look on our efforts to work out logic problems with the same paternalistic appreciation we feel when dogs stop to inspect a promising pile of trash on the sidewalk, hoping to find in it something meaty.” Our pets, he says, will never resolve their “instinctive questions of hunger,” but they also don’t need to. They have us to lead them, and we enjoy having them around, too, so the end is just mutual enrichment.
I am similarly split between the child and the adult, the seeker and the enlightened one, who simply accepts. I think about going to my computer and searching how to let go.
Rachel Wilkinson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and researcher whose essays and profiles have appeared in The Atlantic, Smithsonian, Narratively, The Rumpus, and other publications. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh.