"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Here is a hypothetical for you: imagine that someone asks you a question to which you do not know the answer. However, it is the type of question that you are relatively certain can be answered should the person perform a relatively minimal amount of online searching. How do you tell them to search for it online? Do you say, “do a web search” or “research it” or “you can find out online” or “look it up” or do you say “Google it”?
All of those answers are, ostensibly, telling someone to do the same thing. Yet one of those answers is not like the others, even if it is the variation that one hears most frequently. “Google it” has, for quite some time, been shorthand for “do a web search for it.” While many of the dictionary definitions of Google as a verb, emphasize that “to google” means to perform a search specifically with the Google search engine – the frequency with which “google” is used as a verb has helped to reinforce the idea that Google is not just a search engine, but the search engine. After all, you don’t really hear people saying “DuckDuckGo it” or “Yahoo it” or “Bing it” with nearly the same frequency.
This may appear to be a silly matter, or little more than an obvious observation about the way that people talk in the information age. Nevertheless, there’s something more significant going on here. Google’s products (from the search engine, to Gmail, to Google Maps, to the Android OS, to too many others to list) are everywhere, and to avoid using them often requires more effort than just using them (insofar as Google search may be a default, or Gmail may be used by a person’s employer). However, the way that we talk about technology, and the way that we use technological terms to talk, influences the way that we think about these technological systems. Some technological systems attempt to reconstruct society in their own image, and one of the ways that Google has managed to do this is by weaving itself into the very way we speak, and by extension the way we think.
Every time we say, or we hear someone say, “Google it” we provide an advertisement for and endorsement of the company that is more valuable and effective than any ad campaign. Moreover, every time we say, or we hear someone say, “Google it” we grow more accustomed to treating this massive company as part of the infrastructure that we cannot live or think without. Given everything that we know about Google now, there is reason to be wary of giving it an endorsement (tacit or otherwise). Yet, when we tell someone “Google it” – that’s what we’re doing (whether we mean to or not).
While this may appear to be a strange thing to devote any attention to, Google does not play a neutral role in our lives or in the larger world. And we should therefore be aware when we’re touting it in everyday conversations.
Despite the fact that the questionable activities and scandalous revelations have not ceased, it seems that the tech giants have weathered the much-feared “techlash” relatively well. Certainly, there were some protests, and some less than favorable media coverage, but companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google appear to be doing just fine – if not better than ever. Though some 2020 candidates have had some serious words about taking on the tech giants, the energy around meaningful regulation (at least in the US) has largely dissipated. It isn’t difficult to understand why this is: amidst all of the hell that is unfolding (and getting worse) on a daily basis, it can seem easy insensitive to focus on the issues surrounding the tech companies when so many other grim things are competing for attention. But even as we turn our attention to other serious matters, the tech companies continue to play a key role in exacerbating political instability, spreading hatred, and constructing a high-tech surveillance apparatus that makes classic works of dystopian fiction appear quaint. For many of the wretched situations unfolding today, these tech companies bear some share of the blame.
Granted, it may well be that the reason why the tech giants so effortlessly shrugged off the “techlash” was that there never really was much to it. Some people may have deleted their social media accounts (good), avoided buying stuff from Amazon (also good), or shifted away from Google in favor of less intrusive search engines like DuckDuckGo (also, also good) – but one of the problems that always surrounded the pushback against the tech giants was an overwhelming sense that people had simply grown too reliant on these companies. Though Facebook, Amazon, and Google are relatively young companies, many people can no longer imagine their lives without them. We’ve become habituated to these companies, and arguably, one of the things that has contributed to this is the extent to which phrases like “Google it” have become normalized.
Presciently mulling over this general issue, the final question Neil Postman posed in his “6 Questions to Ask of New Technology” was “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?” It is quite clear what sort of changes are being enforced here, as “google” has been widely taken up as a verb – but the more important matter deals with the gains and losses to which Postman referred. What do we gain by telling someone to “Google it”? Perhaps we save a little bit of time, as we can be confident that our meaning will be understood, and as it is slightly quicker to say “Google it” than it is to say “do a web search” or “look it up.” Yet it may well be that we lose more than we gain when we casually use the name of a massive corporation to describe a basic function of navigating the Internet. When we say “Google it” we reinforce the view that Google is the search engine, we normalize the surveillance capitalism ethos within which Google operates, we recommend that the person we’re advising submit to that same apparatus, and we provide free advertising for a company that is already profiting quite well off of us.
All of which is to say, it is time to stop using “Google” as a verb.
Admittedly this is not a particularly radical suggestion. And it is not meant as a substitute for a broader critique of technology, a push for meaningful regulation, or as being enough. Yet, it’s also the type of relatively small tweak that a person can make in their own life without suffering any real hardship as a result. In fairness, one of the reasons why many people resisted the call to “Delete Facebook” was out of a real sense that they would be severing an important connection to family and friends if they deleted their account. However, what does anyone really lose by telling someone “look up [insert thing]” instead of “Google [insert thing]”? Relatively little, if anything. Of course, in many cases if you tell someone to “look it up” they will still wind up going to Google, and while you can’t necessarily prevent that – you also are under no obligation to continually recommend that people use Google.
As you go online today, in our computer-dominated society, it takes some extra effort to avoid Google’s many programs and platforms. But if you’re looking for a simple thing you can do to push back, you can start by no longer telling people to “Google [it].”