Google wool

A zeit­geist is a spir­it of the times. “Google”: can, prob­a­bly, pre­tend to mea­sure it, at least for a large pro­por­tion of peo­ple in Europe, the Amer­i­c­as and parts of Asia using the sub­ject of queries to it’s data­bas­es as a proxy. But odd­ly, they chooseon­ly to pre­tend to tell us what it is. For an infor­ma­tion util­i­ty, Google is very fru­gal with infor­ma­tion. Google claims bq. It turns out that look­ing at the aggre­ga­tion of bil­lions of search queries peo­ple type into Google reveals some­thing about our curios­i­ty, our thirst for news, and per­haps even our desires. (“Google Press Cen­ter: Zeitgeist”: Well … maybe. In fact the data on indi­vid­ual search­es tell us only about behav­iors dur­ing the year: this isn’t so much zeit­geist as a snap­shot of pop­u­lar his­to­ry. I would say that a zeit­geist is, among oth­er things, the addic­tion to celebri­ty: Google says it’s the wed­ding of Charles Wind­sor and the oth­er woman—which is at best an inad­ver­tent synec­doche and at worst an intel­lec­tu­al fraud. I don’t believe, of course, that there’s any­thing actu­al­ly fraud­u­lent in the Google report: the ‘zeit­geist’ site is an amuse­ment, not a soci­ol­o­gy paper. But the graphs that it offers for select­ed queries such as “Lon­don” (the bomb­ings) or “Jen and Brad” (celebri­ty divorce) are, nev­er­the­less, mis­lead­ing because they are with­out scale. At most they tell us that there was a spike in some unknown mag­ni­tude of inter­est before and after the event they pre­sum­ably illus­trate. But with­out scale we can’t com­pare the rel­a­tive inter­est in Angeli­na Jolie, Martha Stew­art and Car­di­nal Ratzinger (for exam­ple). We don’t know if they fig­ure more or less in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion nor whether Jolie’s adop­tion of a child is more fas­ci­nat­ing than Ratzinger’s assump­tion of the Triple Crown. That rel­a­tiv­i­ty comes much clos­er to fig­ur­ing the zeit­geist than the rel­a­tiv­i­ty of inter­est in a par­tic­u­lar phe­nom­e­non or per­son before and after their (lat­est) moment of fame or infamy. But Google, for rea­sons we can only spec­u­late about, choses to keep that more use­ful infor­ma­tion to itself.

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