A zeitgeist is a spirit of the times. “Google”:http://www.google.com/press/zeitgeist2005.html 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”:http://www.google.com/press/zeitgeist2005.html) 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.
Peter Gallagher is student of piano and photography. He was formerly a senior trade official of the Australian government. For some years after leaving government, he consulted to international organizations, governments and business groups on trade and public policy.
He teaches graduate classes at the University of Adelaide on trade research methods and the role of firms in trade and growth and tweets trade (and other) stuff from @pwgallagher