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Google wants to be God's mind: The secret theology of "I'm feeling lucky"

Google makes order of the universe and answers our entreaties. It knows that it's a temple of knowledge in the sky


John Durham Peters
July 19, 2015 11:29PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media"

Sergey Brin famously suggested that “the perfect search engine would be the mind of God.” This half boast, half ambition puts Google into a long line of hieratic readers of the sky, and has a nice a touch of Kabbalah as well. It shows Google’s membership in a distinguished family of religious media. Google’s project is to build a temple to meet the sky, anchor remembrance, and serve as a canon of all knowledge. Its aim is nothing less than a metamedium that would be the guide for the perplexed of cyberspace. Google inherits the narrative of the priestly class that discerns the universe, renders order out of chaos, answers our entreaties, and invites us to take part in mantic acts of divination. From the unaccountably vast array of possibles Google provides the answer you seek, rather like fortunetelling and haruspicy or the priests who stood in the templum watching the sky for augurs and omens. Google is a clergy defined by its control over the means of inscription and retrieval—as clergies and priesthoods always have been. Google also picks up on the long romance that mathematicians have had with infinite and ultimate things. “The respective interpretation of the symbols 0 and 1 in the system of logic are Nothing and Universe,” wrote George Boole. This was a variant of Leibniz’s view of digital notation as shuttling between creation and the abyss—indeed, in the space where Google likes to shuttle.

Obviously, media are central to whatever we take religion to be. Some strains in Protestant and New Age thought may value immediacy as the only authentic religious mode, but neglect the infrastructures that make it possible. Religious practices in all their varieties have some kind of sacred media at their core; immediacy is usually the achievement of some hidden cultural technique. The Abrahamic book religions are selectively friendly toward devices of divinity, but they also harbor touchy iconoclastic strains ready to attack what are taken as false (objectifying) media. The fight here is about the right media, not about whether media are part of the equation or not. “Religious media” is not an oxymoron; indeed, they may ultimately be the only kind of media there are. Scrolls and Bibles, holidays and calendars, clocks and bells, astrolabes and sundials, sacraments and rites, prayer wheels and divining rods, towers and temples, ram’s horns and organs, stained glass and incense, choirs and diaries, relics and places of pilgrimage, robes and veils are among the media that make religious practice and experience possible. Media can focus and collect spiritual energies, foster communities or zones of likemindedness, store and transmit culture, and unfold the data of the divine. Invoking an old theological term for the sacraments, we may call media media salutis, media of salvation.

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Google all but begs for a theological analysis. The history of conceptions of omniscience is also a history of database media in all their forms, an implicit catalog of different recording formats. God and Google are both passive miners of data; not a sparrow falls nor a click occurs without their notice. The notion that Google is somehow godlike is already well developed, and Google avidly cultivates this mystique. A Google search of “God and Google” yielded 1,110,000,000 hits as of April 2013, including bits of loser-generated content about the church and ten commandments of Google, and several purported sightings of God captured by Google’s roving Street View cameras. There are also distressed pleas from traditional churches that God should not be treated like a big search engine. One church advertised its Sunday sermon: “Google does not have all the answers.” One of the many business books admiring the company is called What Would Google Do. Canadian philosopher of technology Darin Barney made a similar play in a book called One Nation under Google. Everyone gets whose name Google is replacing. The baldest recent play is the cover design of the 2014 bestseller How Google Works, which provides a close-up of a Google search page, the book’s title sitting in the search box. Above that hovers the Google logo, truncated at the second O such that a quick glance at the cover—ubiquitous in bookstore displays as this book goes to press—makes it look like “God.”

Google’s claims to know all and not be evil, rather like a priest set apart to heavenly things, helps explain its widespread credibility. Its corporate mission—“ to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”—presents the company as giving away information when its business is actually the taking in of information. The service it provides—apparently for free—is the public face of its data mining. Google defines its searches according to something like the Prime Directive of Star Trek: no interference. From the beginning Brin and Page noted the danger of biased search protocols and the temptation to slant results in the direction of paying advertisers (Google remains explicit in acknowledging sponsored pages). “There are even numerous companies which specialize in manipulating search engines for profit,” wrote Brin and Page in 1998 with becoming innocence. (Search engine optimization is as old as search engines, like Lenin using the secretary position to rule the Bolveshik party.) Google’s algorithm, billed as a purely artificial intelligence in contrast to Yahoo’s partly curated (human-filtered) searches, was supposed to be neutral and universal in its indifference.

Google presents one face to the public—with its whimsically changing logos (“doodles”), April Fool’s Day send-ups, baby-talk-like name. and infant-nursery colors—and another to its advertisers. What Google reads from search requests and web crawlers is secret and proprietary, the latest round of oligoliteracy or, rather, oligonumeracy. My former student, Evelyn Bottando, begins her doctoral dissertation on Google Books by recounting her visit to the company’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first thing she had to do was sign a nondisclosure agreement. Not all of the world’s information, evidently, was accessible. Google’s constantly tweaked PageRank algorithm (four hundred changes in 2010 alone) is as secret as the recipe for Coca-Cola. In their founding statement, Brin and Page said that previous search engine technology had been a “black art.” Little has changed.

Google itself is nervous in the light it shines on everyone else. Since 2007, Google’s special camera-mounted cars have taken 360-degree photos of streets, shops, and buildings in several countries for the Street View application on Google Maps. Street View has aroused complaints about invasion of privacy, since it has immortalized men urinating in public and provided glimpses through people’s windows, and in early 2013 Google paid a seven million dollar fine (relative chump change). Street View typically blurs faces, license plates, and other sensitive items, defending its practice as one-size-fits-all objectivity. Curiously, the pictures Street View provides of the Googleplex, its corporate headquarters or “campus” in Mountain View, California, are taken from odd angles: as of August 2012, one could see the volleyball court and one building. Evidently the all-seeing eye of Google does not look in the mirror very often. (The one time I visited the Googleplex, without an invitation and in the company of a friend, we were quickly invited to leave by a polite security guard. On the way out I admired the power cords, dangling from the carports, that employees may use to charge their electric vehicles for free.) Power draws the center of the map blank. Because of its claim to “consecration,” as Hillis et al. call it, Google’s slips are all the more glaring. It is characteristic of sacred things to be easily desecrated; profane things are more robust, more accustomed to dirt. Small blemishes stand out on a beauty; small vices stink worse on a would-be saint.

The stunning aesthetic of the Google search page is rife with religious suggestiveness. Compared to the clutter of, say, MySpace, Google’s spaciousness screams class and elegance. (Visual crowding in design signals trashiness.) Google’s color scheme—which seems to show up on all the books about Google as well—suggests Play-Doh basics; its “pristine sea of white” suggests purity and perhaps the pearly gates or the cloud in the sky. A white background also suggests a new document in which to type: this is not the black background with green letters in DOS days of yore. (White is the color of the Apple logo and many of its products.) White also suggests greater expenditure of energy: it costs more energy to color pixels than to turn them off. Google offers the visitor a threshold space, and loves to host a short visit, but it will stalk you on all the rest of your paths. Like Jesus, Google says: “I am the door.”

The home page’s two options for scouting the web—“ Google search” and “I’m feeling lucky”—are an essential touch. “I’m feeling lucky” is a subjective mode of address. This is not Google addressing its user with “You’re feeling lucky”; this is me, the first person, entering the web, and also the cry of the gambler, muttering incantations over something he can’t control. The Google search page is the portal of desire, the throne to which people bring their petitions. (Its servers house the Archive of Wants.) “I’m feeling lucky” also invokes religious practices of casting lots. The frequent effectiveness of the “I’m feeling lucky” button gives Google a reason to brag. (Of late it usually takes you to a Wikipedia page, but earlier its results could be more surprising.)

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Even though Google makes no money on the 1 percent or so of searches that are done on the “lucky” button (which delivers only a single result, and thus none of the advertising peripherals), the company’s leaders have been remarkably firm in keeping it in the face of criticism from the guardians of the bottom line. They know what they are doing. The lucky button amply repays the lost income by maintaining the oracular aura and geeky charm. Its loss would be incalculable. At the Google search page, you stand on the threshold and knock. Two alternatives await you side by side: the ancient one of divination and the modern one of Google. The cultural resonance of the company comes in pairing its computerized claim to trawl the totality with I Ching-like mystery. Ancient, modern; God, Google—the continuities are clear. Its search page is perhaps most religious in the simple structure of the search or quest. What do people seek? A signal amid the static. True love. A fugitive from justice. A lost key ring. Google can help find some of these things.

Google gives hints of ever greater demiurgic visions. Adam and Eve had “knowledge” once they ate the forbidden fruit, and they “knew” one another to have children (one reading of the Apple logo.) Could Google do that? Apparently yes, according to an ad Google ran during the 2010 Super Bowl. Called “Parisian Love” and viewed nearly seven million times on Google-owned YouTube as of April 2013, it is a little narrative jewel telling the story of a romance in twelve Google searches, with a soundtrack as clever as the images. The first search query, entered into Google’s white home page, is “study abroad paris,” and is archetypally loaded: American boy goes to the city of romance. The second query is for “cafes near the Loo . . . Louve,” which Google corrects to “Louvre,” gently mocking our subject’s lack of French. (Google knows better.) The third is “translate tu es très mignon” (You are very cute), which, presumably, someone had told him, and which is what we are supposed to think about Google. Then “impress a french girl,” “chocolate shops paris,” “what are truffles,” and “who is truffaut.” (The serendipity of search engines!) The American in Paris is getting culture and falling in love. Then “long distance relationship advice”: we hear a phone ringing, answered by an expectant female voice with a Gallic “Allo!” Time has telescoped between the searches, and the rhythm of the ad accelerates. Then “working in paris,” “AA120” (a possible product placement) with jet and airport sounds, and “churches in paris.” These searches allow Google to show off its diverse services: translation, flight updates, maps. As a church is selected on the map and celebratory bells ring in the background, a final query is entered. “How” is typed in, briefly (at forty-four seconds) revealing “How to get pregnant” as the jokey option among the several autofill items, and is then completed as “How to assemble a crib.” In a final narrative twist, we bolt in a time lapse from the marriage to the birth. (Google delivers expedited results.) As the final screen reads “Search on,” we hear a baby coo.

There are many things we could note about this ad. One is the odd context of the Super Bowl. Google ran the ad online for three months before the Super Bowl as part of its stable of edifying videos, many of them backed with pulsing but polite octave-heavy piano music, called “Google search stories.” (This roster of edification about divinely facilitated couplings could make a nice study.) The Super Bowl was a surprising choice, since Google’s claim to advertising excellence had always been presented as an alternative to throwing money away on diffusely targeted ads: Google as a smart bomb, not a weapon of mass destruction. Evidently now it was time for corporate potlatch, the prestige that came from being part of the world’s biggest advertising fiesta. More subtle was the implicit message of the ad: Google guides your life. It connects people—from the awkward beginnings of groping for a common language through media, such as telephone and airplane, to the sacral media of bells and church, and then to the homey assembling of a crib. Google is a spinner of fate and matchmaker. Using its time-tested creative strategy of riding already existing cultural materials (boy-meets-girl, Paris as romance, Louvre, chocolate, French cinema), the key message was: Google makes babies. Its knowledge was presented as not only intellectual, but carnal.

“Parisian love” presents searching as eros, the desire to connect in the most fundamental way possible. (It also indirectly acknowledges what statistically is one of the web’s main affordances: erotic content and sexual coupling.) Here a classic boy-dream company presents itself not only as the spinner of fate and source of all intelligence, but as reaching into the mystery of making a new life. Google wants to show its command over conception in both senses, and stakes its bid for the most long-lasting kind of preservation. Plato, founding the traditional fantasy of male-only, purely intellectual creation apart from the mediation of women, treated theōria as eros. But little suggests that nature needs to know or is particularly concerned with epistemological truth. The animals give no reasons for the torrid lives they feel, however much our theōria and technē prey off their evolutionary achievements. In some vague way, Google confesses its envy of what Goethe called the eternal feminine. (Technology is womb envy.) Masculine theoretical knowledge is not enough to satisfy Google’s ambitions. The datascape wants to reach into the bioscape, the world of recording media into the cycle of life itself.

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Excerpted from "The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media" by John Durham Peters. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2015 by The University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


John Durham Peters

John Durham Peters is the A. Craig Baird professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of "Speaking Into the Air" and "Courting the Abyss."

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