DH Reads

DH Read: “Just Google It: A Short History of a Newfound Verb”

This WIRED piece by Virginia Heffernan reminded me of something that Jessica Dauterive, the other 2016-2018 DH Fellow, has brought up in our weekly DH Fellow meetings—that there was something much more playful, open-ended, and less structured about digital history during its earliest phase in the 1990s and that this playfulness is no longer integral to how digital historians think about their work (for more on this idea, see Jessica’s Omeka exhibit on The Lost Museum). It seems that this development has sort of mirrored a similar change in online search from an activity initially imagined as almost whimsical to something more purposeful and directed:

[F]or insiders, “to Google” started as an intransitive verb; a pastime without an object; search for search’s sake; a Sunday drive through cyberspace. But by 2002 we layfolk had gotten our mitts on it and knew what Google was really for—forensics, stalking, the transitive stuff. “Have you Googled her yet?” Willow asks Buffy in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “She’s 17!” cries Xander, finding some nice prurience in the word. Corrects Willow: “It’s a search engine.” The next year, the American Dialect Society named Google, transitive verb, “the most useful” word of 2002. The Oxford English Dictionary minted it in June 2006.

Heffernan finds Google’s claim of organizing the world’s information problematic. As she explains:

Part of the shared pretending done by Google and anyone who uses it is to act as if “information” on the web already existed in some kind of natural state prior to Google’s mission to organize it. Instead, information in its present form is, in fact, a product of Google and would be nothing without the company’s decision to recognize it as Googleable, rank it in the algorithm’s esoteric hierarchy, and incentivize its renovation so it might make itself prettier to Google. “To Google” something, therefore, is to accept the fiction that Google is both the whole information world—and the only path through it.

It’s probably unfair of me to compare Google to any digital history project (Google’s reach into so many aspects of our lives is certainly unparalleled by even the most popular, well-funded DH project imaginable), but this does make me wonder what epistemological message newer digital history projects send compared to the more interactive and creative projects of the past, ones that imagined the use of hyperlinks as a way to encourage nonlinear thinking and exploration. I think it’s also worth thinking about how Google has shaped DH work over the last two decades and what the implications of that might be… is it possible to work against the grain of Google’s view of and vision for the internet when your project’s success depends on appearing at the top of Google searches? In what ways does a project buy into or replicate Google’s particular brand of information management? We should be asking these questions of our work. These are just some of the not-so-fully-formed thoughts I have after reading Heffernan’s brief article.

Read the original piece here.