Halfway through my week without Google, my wife mentions that she would like to go out to see a film that evening, and I agree to deal with the logistics. In what I initially think is an inspired move, I drop by the local cinema on the way home and scribble down all the film times in my notebook. Then my wife insists on going to a different cinema.
“Can I do this by phone?” I ask her. “Is 118 still a thing?”
Turns out it is, and an expensive one: ￡.50 a call, plus 75p a minute, plus a 55p access charge from my mobile provider. But more than a million people a year still use the service, and it even offers a text facility that answers questions — although you’re essentially just asking someone to Google something for you and text you back, for ￡.50 a go.
Before I started this experiment, when I tried to imagine what it would be like to take a break from Google, what I was really trying to remember was how my life worked all those years before it started.
Google was founded in 1998. Thinking back to the mid-90s, I dimly recall visiting libraries in the course of my work as a journalist, and having fat envelopes of press cuttings delivered to my door. I remember tracking down Meat Loaf’s out-of-print autobiography in a secondhand bookshop the day before interviewing him. But often, I never found the answers I was looking for. Instead, I adjusted the questions. I remember factual disputes in pubs and at dinner parties that simply never got settled. I remember finding my own way around town. I remember learning straightforward repairs from books instead of videos. I remember doing all of these things, but I don’t really remember how it felt.
To get Google out of your life is a big undertaking. Google Maps doesn’t just get you to places; it drives many of the other apps you use, including Uber. Google owns YouTube. Google controls my thermostat. For the purposes of this experiment, I am simply avoiding the maps, the search engine, the browser and YouTube. I am going to keep using e-mail.
There are, of course, other browsers, search engines and map apps out there, but I am not trying to find substitutes. I am trying to do without.
GOOGLE ON THE BRAIN
My reasons have little to do with Google’s monopoly on searching, or its free and easy way with my data. I am worried it is doing something to my brain. Actually, I am worried that Google is my brain.
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes familiar symptoms while trying to absorb text of any length.
“My concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread and begin to look for something else to do,” Carr writes.
The book’s main contention is that our highly plastic brains are being rewired by the demands of online existence: an increased knack for mental multitasking comes at the price of our ability to think deeply. Google, he says, is a huge part of this.
“Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction,” he says.
The Shallows was published in 2010, and it is unlikely anything has improved since then. Carr maintains that the rise of the smartphone, along with social media, has magnified the problem considerably.
“A decade ago, you could still make a distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline,’” he tells me in an e-mail. “We spent a lot of time on the Internet, but we didn’t live there. Now, we do. Today, essentially, people are always online.”
Google receives 63,000 searches every second, about two trillion a year, accounting for more than 90 percent of the global search engine market. It is said that the average person performs three to four searches a day, but a glance through my browser history before shutting Google down shows I regularly exceed 20. Many of these are purposeful; many more are not.
Two weeks ago, I found and ordered the precise replacement part I needed for my broken coffee machine. But I also searched for the name of someone I’d met the night before; a definition of China’s One Belt One Road development strategy; a catflap door; a list of Balkan cities (cheating at a crossword); the local recycling timetable; what toothwort is; and “Yul Brynner as robot with face plate removed.”
For my own sanity, I need a break.
When I moved house two years ago, I started to rely on Google for navigation. Now, I am utterly dependent. I don’t just want to know the way — I want to know the best way, as of this minute. I can’t remember the last time I gave a thought to where anything was.
“How do I buy an A-Z?” I ask my wife.
“I don’t even know that you can,” she says. I think: Google would know.
A-Zs are still widely available, as I discover after I take the bus to the closest bookshop on my severely depleted mental map. While I am there, I run across a book called Offline — which promises to help me “avoid the potentially disastrous side-effects of digital pollution.”
I am reminded how big a role serendipitous discovery used to play in pre-Google research.
On the way home, I drop by my nearest library for the first time. It is a tiny branch, and the computing section is mostly dedicated to programming manuals, a fair number with the words “for Dummies” in the title. Everybody else in the room is looking at Google. I am sure this borough has a bigger central branch, but I have no idea where it is. An A-Z only works with an address. You can’t just look up “library.”
Later, I find my son in the kitchen, making tea. He was born in 1999, so he has never known a world without Google.
“So, it’s the first day of my week without Google,” I tell him.
“You’re switching search engines?” he asks.
“No, that’s not the point,” I say.
“What is the point?”
“The point is to remember what it was like before,” I say. “You have no idea how people used to find out stuff.”
“You just had to hope someone else knew,” he says.
“There were systems in place,” I say, “of which you know nothing.”
“Without Google, the issue was how to get the answer,” he says.
“With Google, the issue is the answer.”
“Let’s say you wanted to know about brain surgery,” I say.
“First, you would ...” I stop there. I can’t remember.
I spend the morning in my home office, unsure about how to proceed with, well, anything. Once again, I ask myself: how did this work in 1997?
I remember that, back then, I bought three or more newspapers every day, and kept all the copies until the end of the week. I still have a basic printed reference library — dictionaries of biography, film, literature, etymology, quotations, etc — but nothing has been updated for 20 years. I once owned a handy encyclopedia on CD-Rom, but that went the way of the CD-Rom drive.
For reassurance, I return to the book I bought — Offline, by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner — which explains that while Google may be great for finding facts and coffee machine parts, its primary purpose is to deliver me to advertisers, as part of a system designed to make sure I am never not shopping.
“Think of it as a complete set of rails laid out in front of you and designed to keep you engaged by exposing you to a number of different approaches.”
I think about a jacket I searched for last week, which I decided was too expensive, and which haunted every Web page I visited afterwards, floating above the text I was reading as if to say: look what you forgot to buy.
As the authors point out, there is a reason I had this miraculous, free, search facility — and all the knowledge it could locate — at my fingertips.
“The equation is actually very simple if you look at it as a reversal of the traditional vendor-consumer relationship,” they write. “Your attention is the commodity.” Competition for my attention is fierce, and the result is that I am inattentive to almost everything else. As the book reminds me, before the advent of smartphones “most of us could hold 20 or even 50 phone numbers in our head”. Today, I know precisely four: my parents’ home phone — unchanged for 55 years; my dad’s office number — not in use for 15; my wife’s mobile; and mine.
A Guardian photographer follows me while I navigate through London with my A-Z, but I can tell he is frustrated and wants to use his phone. I keep dropping things into the conversation such as: “I wonder how you go about getting a British Library card?” hoping he might be able to tell me. I think about what my son said — “You just had to hope someone else knew” — and I realize my primary research tool was, and still is, the stupid question. When you ask Google, nobody has to hear.
It’s the day of my wife’s proposed cinema visit, and 118 connects me to the cinema chain’s recorded phone menu, which refers me to the Web site for film times and hangs up on me. I ring back and select the booking option. After a 10-minute wait, I am connected to a charming woman who seems to have nothing but time. She runs me through the whole film schedule twice, and describes the interior of the cinema in some detail so I can choose my seats. I have a little trouble making up my mind.
“No worries at all,” she says. “Is there a card in your name we’ll be popping this on to?” I can’t figure out why she’s being so patient, until I realize she’s assuming I am very old. Otherwise, I would be doing this online.
That evening, following her precise instructions, I show my credit card to the man at the popcorn till. He looks up my name and prints out my tickets. “It’s like shopping by candlelight,” I say.
At a small library I run across by accident, I make a random discovery: in a thick binder labeled “local info” is a book that contains the addresses of every library in the country. I take a picture of the listing for my local main branch — Ealing central library — and head off.
Navigating by A-Z again is an eye-opener. You need to keep your head up to read street signs and posted bus routes, and there are still plenty of “now what?” moments, not least when I get off the bus where the library is supposed to be, and there is nothing remotely library-shaped on the horizon.
It transpires Ealing central library is located inside the Ealing Broadway shopping center. After a speculative wander, I find a sign, then another, directing me to the first floor. The library, it turns out, is closed — not for the afternoon, or the day, but since August, for renovations.
I don’t know what to do with myself. What is the point of having a computer if you can’t look things up on Google? Yes, I do have some work to do, but the days of deprivation have done nothing to restore my attention span. In the afternoon, a slim package arrives: my long-awaited coffee machine part, essentially a knob. Thanks to Google, it is the precise knob for my model, but it’s missing the small plastic insert that was the actual broken bit. Without it, the knob is useless.
At this point I feel very close to quitting the experiment because I really want that plastic sleeve. With a heavy heart, I pull the invoice from the bin, ring the number on it and listen to eight minutes of hold music. Eventually, a woman, Vivienne, picks up. I describe my problem.
“It’s a little plastic piece, like a sleeve,” I say.
“No idea what that would be,” she says. “Can you find a picture of it and give me the model number?”
“I can’t get online,” I say.
“That’s fine,” she says. “What about an e-mail address?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m allowed e-mail.”
She sends me an exploded illustration of my coffee machine with all the parts numbered.
“I don’t see it there, Vivienne,” I say. “Unless it’s embedded in the knob.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to call the manufacturer,” she says.
“Do you want the number?”
The manufacturer answers with a recording telling me that the service department is closed on Friday afternoons.
It’s probably fair to say that Google is inescapable, unless you resign yourself to getting nowhere without it. I spent so much of my week being either lost or bewildered, when the basic solution to my immediate problem might have been at my fingertips.
But it wasn’t a waste. I got almost nothing done, but, while I was out there, I did a lot of looking and I bought a lot of stuff. I even found a version of that jacket I liked in a shop, for a third of the price.
Now when it hovers over the Web page I am on, saying: “Buy me!” I’ll be wearing it. I briefly reclaimed the ability to walk through the world with maximum inefficiency, relying on random discoveries, luck, the kindness of strangers and the patience of phone operators.
I return to the e-mail Carr sent me.
“Constant connectivity has become so habitual (and so expected by society) that brief breaks just aren’t going to be sufficient to retrain the brain to relax, resist distraction and concentrate,” he writes. “At this point, the craving for the screen’s stimulations is pretty deeply engrained in most people’s psyches.”
This may be the main problem: Google and the other major platforms have got very good at keeping our attention. The price we pay is endless inattention to the world around us. And that’s not all Google’s fault.
“Thanks to some combination of laziness, gullibility and vanity, we have proven ourselves all too eager to embrace a culture of distraction and dependency,” said Carr. “We could have said no.”
One of the great impositions of modern life is the obligation to go everywhere forewarned and forearmed, to access timetables, reviews and instructions ahead of even the simplest tasks, for the sake of a frictionless existence. Once, it was creepy to Google someone just before you knew you were going to meet them. Now it’s sort of required.
I am not nostalgic for an era of bank queues, closed shops and being lost. I am glad to be relieved of the obligation of social interaction just to access a bit of information, because people are not always helpful, patient or fun to talk to. But for all that Google has given us, we have paid a price: we’re well on our way to eliminating the element of surprise from our lives and, with it, joy.
I don’t think it is too late to reclaim some of our attention back. My brain responded pretty well to the time off. Even Carr is not wholly pessimistic about the future.
“I wouldn’t rule out the emergence of a counterculture that rejects digital media entirely — a kind of echo of the ‘back to nature’ movement of the 60s,” he wrote. “That may be wishful thinking on my part, but you never know.”
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