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Asking Google is Asking Humanity

Humanity on four laptops

I remember my first real-time online interaction.  It was 1993, and I was navigating through a local BBS on my trusty 2400 baud modem.  Some of you may have used BBSes back in the day, but most of you probably don’t know what that is.  BBS stands for Bulletin Board System, which is just a software program on someone else’s computer, where different users could log via phone line on and read news, play simple games, download programs or leave messages.

Most BBSes only had one incoming line, so you couldn’t be online at the same time as anyone else.  If you attempted to reach the BBS when someone else was on, you got a busy signal.  Even though BBSes had many members, it really was a solo activity, you just explored what other people had left there, hence the monikier Bulletin Board.  Still, they fascinated me.

One day, while I was reading some crude, text-based message board, the screen went black.  At the top, letter by letter, words began to appear, as if I was typing them.  But wasn’t me, it was someone else! My heart started pounding.  Life! There was a living, breathing person using my computer, in my basement, from somewhere out there.  It was astonishing and terrifying, like I was encountering an alien.


how are you?? do you like my bbs?

what do you think : >

It felt like HAL 9000 had hijacked by old IBM 386. It turns out it was the BBS’s system operator, or “SysOp” in computer jargon.  I could see his keystrokes appear one by one.  They showed where he hesitated, where he changed his mind and typed another word.  I could see him thinking.

I chatted with him for a minute or two, and then he disappeared.  It was a magical experience.

Fast-forward sixteen years, and now we can connect with each other in ways that I never could have imagined.  And it isn’t just the basement-dwelling computer dork that’s online, it’s everyone, from preteens to soccer moms to Zen masters (follow @thichnhathanh on Twitter).  Every day, a colorful variety of people are contributing their thoughts and ideas to an unfathomably huge communal library.  As I raved about in a previous post, we are expanding the most comprehensive knowledge base in history at an incredible rate.

But the really gratifying part is how easy it is now to retrieve the information you want.  Even just five years ago, search engines were comparatively awful.  You could conduct very general research fairly easily, but just to get a straightforward answer to a specific question was frustrating. Too many irrelevant sites, too many pay-only sites; very few on the front page were offering what you wanted.

Google earned the prestigious position it has today by constantly refining itself to produce more and more useful results.  You can just type your question right into it and chances are the top result will have an answer you can use.  Those of you who are new to the online world probably have no idea how ineffective search engines used to be, by comparison.

Twitter I find to be even more incredible.  Ask a question, and in an instant you have actual people, not just algorithms, addressing it. To think what Twitter will be capable of in five years just blows my mind.  But it is still in its infancy, and Google is the go-to answer machine for most of us.

Not to exalt Google too much, but it’s almost become a modern day oracle.  Answer-seekers from far and wide cast their wishes and prayers into the little white box.  And not just for petty things.  People search for alternative treatments to their illnesses, ways out of bad relationships, relief from depression, advice on managing debt, and better self-esteem.

The internet has come to represent more than just reams of information and entertainment.  It represents the collective knowledge and wisdom of humanity itself.  When we have problems, we can now appeal to the whole world, and not just our best friend or our psychiatrist.  It is our desires that we type into that little box. We tell it what we yearn for, whether it’s an affordable trip to the tropics, or Mets tickets, or advice on how to accept a painful past.

As the administrator of a website, I’ve discovered that I have the sobering privilege of seeing almost directly into many people’s desires.  When I check my traffic sources using Mint, it shows me what search terms people typed in when they found my articles.  Some of them are hilarious, others puzzling, and some of them break my heart.  I never know who typed what, but very often I begin to imagine where a person was, mentally and physically, when they cast their prayer into the box.

Here are some of the more interesting ones, and the posts they landed on.

accepting oneself and the embarrassing aftermath of a relationship

how to revere yourself

accepting yourself (x14)

accepting that people love me

to The One Ingredient Necessary for Accepting Yourself

feel like me and my consciousness are different people

too self conscious to go for a walk

it may seem that i have locked myself away from the people of the world

self-conscious all the time

how to treat self conscious people

to How to Alleviate Self-Consciousness and Other People Allergies (a popular one)

i need amazing songs!

songs about what it means to be a man

to Six Amazing Songs That Illustrate What it Means to be Human

there is no good and evil, only like and dislike

probably there is no good

There is no good and evil. There are no rights and wrongs, only consequences

why do people persist in destructive behavior even though it’s costly

to There is No Good and Evil, Just Smart and Dumb

i have a really hard time connecting with people

they say people don’t really listen, but only wait for their turn to talk

how to connect with people

connecting with young people who find it hard to express themselves

to The Secret to Connecting With People

true men of non-doing

to 7 Profound Insights From the Beatles

protect your dreams & goals from other people

to Protect Your Dreams From Contamination

how to comfort someone in a bad mood

how to deal with bad moods for no particular reason

how to keep going when things are really bad

protecting yourself from others bad moods

working out causing bad moods

to How to Keep Bad Moods From Taking You Over

keep life fresh -salsa -recipe

to How to Keep Life Fresh, for Free

I’m sure someone reading this recognizes their own search term here in this list, and perhaps you’d forgotten what desire it was that brought you to Raptitude.  Let me reassure you I don’t know who searched for what, only that someone found me and my ideas because they were looking for that something.  Hopefully I was able to provide it, or at least provide something you enjoyed.

It certainly is amazing to see what desire it was that led people to my work, whether they found what they were looking for or not.  It made me realize how we’re becoming quite used to the idea of asking the world at large for what we want, and more and more, it’s able to give it to us.  As the volume of information out there increases, so does the ability for search engines and social media to bubble the best information to the top.  Humanity’s top recommendations, opinions, ideas, advice and services are available at your fingertips, and they’re only getting better and easier to find.

It’s a good time to be alive.


Photo by Simczuk

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Roger - A Content Life May 1, 2009 at 6:56 am


You just brought back my fond memories of BBSs. Compared to today, they were so crude, but I loved them. I especially liked downloading great shareware apps.

Google has become our collective memory. I can’t imagine a world without it anymore.

I wonder what the implications are for learning and school. Does it still make sense to memorize historical facts? Should schools teach more high-level theory because the details are always available online if you just know the right high-level terminology? I don’t know, but it is interesting to watch it evolve.

Jay Schryer May 1, 2009 at 6:58 am

Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane, David! Ahh…BBS how I marveled at thee…

I, too am amazed at the power of modern search engines. I’m also amazed at how the internet itself has exploded, and that so many people are online now. I love how easy it is to connect with people, and (as you mentioned in the article) how easy it is to find answers to questions now.

Google, Twitter, and forums serve as modern-day oracles. Even though we know that it’s just other humans on the other end of the screen, and not some divine presence, it’s still magical in the way that it happens. Instantly, we are able to consult the great thinkers from across history, and from across the world. It really is amazing when you stop to think about it.

David May 1, 2009 at 8:23 am

Hah.. fellow BBSers, I never would have thought.

Roger, you raise a good point. Reference is lightning-fast now; memorizing facts and dates might not be the best use of classroom time. I wonder how education will change in the next decade.

Lisis | Quest For Balance May 1, 2009 at 8:35 am

@ David and Roger: It NEVER made sense to memorize historical facts. Einstein said he tried not to memorize anything he could look up, so that more of his brain power was available for actual thinking. When I teach my son History there are only a handful of dates or names that I try to get him to remember (the really big ones), but aside from that, we study the story… the trend… the meaning of life so far. =-)

@ David and Jay: I love this image of Google as the Oracle at Delphi. Several times a day I make my pilgrimage to the keyboard to pose the great questions to Google, the modern day soothsayer. Awesome! ;-)

Positively Present May 1, 2009 at 1:40 pm

I’m so intrigued by this post! I’ve never really thought about what people search for and how that relates to specific articles/links and it’s such an interesting topic to think about. I love the way you’ve written this and the spin you put on it, about asking and about desires. I sort of go through life just adapting to newer and newer technology but it really IS amazing how you can ask Google a question and instantly get an answer or request information via Twitter. Blows my mind, really…

Nadia - Happy Lotus May 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I remember when I was in college, I had to use a word processor to type papers and this was in the 90s. When I got to law school, laptops became affordable and the Internet was just happening. It was amazing that I could communicate with people instantly without having to send a letter.

As someone who has had their share of long-distance relationships, email is awesome. I remember dating a guy in high school and having to send him letters. It would take a week for it to reach him which felt like an eternity.

When I was dating my husband and he was outside of America, I could email him and get a response within a day. How times have changed but for the better. God bless the people who created the Internet! :)

Josh Hanagarne May 1, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Good stuff David. As much as Librarians love to fret about being replaced by Google, it is a fantastic resource. You make some great points and give a lot of food for thought. It is a humbling experience to see someone else’s insecurities laid bare–an unexpected biproduct of checking your blog stats. By the way, have you been happy with Mint? Never heard of it before this post.

David May 1, 2009 at 5:23 pm

@ Lisis — I think you are right. Memorization is not really learning. I think the only reason we memorized anything in school was to pass the test. Usually the ideas behind the lessons went over our heads. Sounds like Hunter has a great teacher.

@ Dani — I think the humanness of the internet has really emerged in the last couple of years, at least from my perspective. I feel close to a lot of people that I have never even met; it was never like this before, and I’ve been using the internet for fifteen years.

@ Nadia — Email is really incredible. It’s so ubiquitous now that I often forget how amazing it really is. Sometimes I think about messengers on horseback, hundreds of years ago, trotting through the countryside for weeks just to deliver a few words from one person to a distant friend. Email is a little less romantic I guess, but it really facilitates human connections.

@ Josh — I don’t think books will ever go out of style. As far as research goes, there is enough accessible information available on the internet to write a paper or do a school project without ever cracking a book. But the internet cannot replace the physical feeling of holding printed words in your hands. The more I love the internet, the more I love books too.

ann elise May 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Wow, David, how incredibly revealing that Mint service is… people not only find what they are searching for, you find out how you are helping them meet those needs. I can see how it would be humanizing, giving an imaginable physical form to the words we send each other.

You have such a unique insight into life.

@Josh: Frannie sleeps with a book, in addition to a stuffed animal. I’ll see if I can catch a shot for you. We also find her awake, hiding in her closet with her books.

ann elise’s last blog post..Swine flu and travel safety

David May 1, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Wow, thanks Ann Elise, I’m flattered to hear you say that. Yeah, I forgot to mention Mint, Josh asked about it. I think it’s truly excellent. It’s useful and attractive, and not overcomplicated. It costs $30, a one-time fee.

jeff May 3, 2009 at 7:00 am

Am I the only person who simply does not comprehend Twitter? I am sure it can do wonderful things but it remains a complete mystery to me. I have read the ‘How to Get Started’ and it still has all the clarity of a Zen koan.

The Internet of course is some kind of magic. The noosphere lives!

David May 3, 2009 at 8:44 am

Hehe… you’re definitely not the only person that doesn’t comprehend Twitter. I think their tagline “What are you doing?” is misleading; that’s not really what it’s about.

It’s about uncovering other people’s personalities through little bits of information they provide. The only way to really understand it is to just experiment for a while.

kb February 5, 2010 at 12:07 am

even though i wasn’t the one to write it, i know exactly how being too self-conscious to go for a walk feels. i’m glad to know i wasn’t alone.

Leland December 17, 2012 at 2:07 am

Heya! I hope you don’t mind but I decided to post your site: https://www.raptitude.com/2009/05/asking-google-is-asking-humanity/ to my online directory website. I used, “Asking Google is Asking Humanity” as your web site title. I hope this is acceptable with you. If you’d
like me to change the title or remove it completely, e-mail me at lelandhannon@gmail.
com. Appreciate it.

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