These days whenever things go wrong - or even right - it's search engines we turn to for answers and affirmation. So how did the internet become our best friend, confidant, oracle - and what do the questions we ask reveal about our lives? Kate Bussmann investigates.
If you were to look at the search history on my computer, the list of all the websites I've visited and the questions I've asked Google, you'd learn a lot about me. You'd learn where I bank, that my last supermarket order included smoked fish and Ryvita crackers, that I spend too much time on Pinterest and gossip sites, that I'm mulling over a trip to Croatia, which film I saw last Saturday and at what cinema, that I have a cat that licks plastic, and a whole load of other stuff that I'm not about to tell you - or anyone else, for that matter.
But I have told Google. Where once we saw the internet as the equivalent of an encyclopaedia, and search engines as librarians, now we treat them as our closest confidants. Google knows all our secrets. Take this apocryphal story about an internet service provider tracking the searches of a customer: over a matter of weeks, they went from "pregnancy vitamins" to "relationship counselling" to "abortion clinics" - a six-word tragedy that rivals Ernest Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn".
Like many people, I trust Google to find me answers to everything from the mundane to the medical. Now, after a decade in which our increasing obsession with social media brought our computers out of the study and into the living room, more of us are turning to the internet even when our question is emotional or irrational. The result: two decades after the birth of the internet, our search histories have become a mirror to every aspect of our lives.
"Someone once said that what you look for is way more telling than information about yourself - this is something Google and other search engines understood a long time ago," says Luciano Floridi, the Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the Oxford Internet Institute. "Future generations will be able to trace our interests as a society just by looking at what we were looking for. Even if we don't find the information, it doesn't matter. Who we are, how we represent ourselves, how the world feeding back a mirror image of ourselves shapes our idea of ourselves - this is as old as philosophy, but today has a completely new twist. The online and offline are becoming more and more blurred, and that feeds back into our self-perception." (If that sounds pseudy, then think of the example of a recruiter googling someone who's applied for a job: does the person on Twitter better represent who they really are, or the person on their best behaviour in the interview room?)
Of course, Google is usually just a portal: it's the results it throws up that provide the answers to our questions, and some of them are more trustworthy than others. Rationally, we should know that TripAdvisor is just the collated opinions of strangers who may not share our taste or may have an axe to grind, but we still use it. "Its success is a telling story," says Floridi. "I do believe there's a tendency to trust intermediaries online. You can ask your inner circle of 10 or 15 people about the special holiday you want to take for your wedding anniversary, but how many of them have experience of the Maldives, Seychelles, Beijing? On TripAdvisor, all of a sudden you have thousands of people giving you advice. So I suspect that because there is so much more available, intermediation is becoming increasingly present in our lives. We're seeing a move towards what I like to talk of as a proxy society, a world in which proxy services are there to help you navigate."
But crowds aren't always wise. Just because Thomas Piketty's 696-page economics tome Capital In The Twenty-First Century has topped bestseller lists doesn't mean that you'll enjoy reading it. (According to one analysis, readers of the ebook edition rarely made it past page 26.) "People tend to conform to what the majority think or do," says Dr Olga Stavrova, a researcher who studies conformity at the University of Cologne. We believe, she says, that "what the majority do can be effective, and therefore good for me as well, and this is especially important in uncertain situations".
But we can also be influenced against our better judgment. She gives the example of a well-known 1950s group study by the American psychologist Solomon Asch, in which subjects were asked which lines on a card were the same length. Other participants had been told to give the wrong answer, and even though the correct one was obvious, two thirds went along with the group.
Misinformation can spread like a virus, leading to unjustified scares such as the one around the MMR vaccine - or even just a bad case of cyberchondria.
On the internet anyone can pretend to be an expert, which is why, 17 years ago, two British GPs decided to start their own site, patient.co.uk, where every entry is written by GPs and every piece of information referenced and peer-reviewed. Traffic has nearly tripled over the past two years to 16 million visitors per month.
Cyberchondria, according to the site's clinical consultant, Dr Sarah Jarvis, the shudder audible in her voice, "is a huge and ever-growing problem. If you look at chest pain, for instance, the most common cause in a young person is muscular strain. But, of course, people only read as far as 'heart attack' or 'lung cancer'. I have a patient who has used up all her private cover, repeatedly seeing consultants, despite me telling her that her chest pain is not caused by heart disease. She's in a vicious cycle, and every time she goes on the internet it reinforces what she believes. There can be huge psychological harm - even if you end up getting the all-clear."
There are instances when Googling symptoms does work: Jarvis recalls a patient whose search on patient.co.uk led him to connect his tiredness to his mouth ulcers, which together can point to coeliac disease and, sure enough, that was the problem. And all that collated data can be fascinating and very useful. Back-pain searches surge after spring ("people go out in the garden or start doing DIY," says Jarvis), while search queries can show an outbreak of flu long before it would be obvious to the authorities.
According to a study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, data from sources including Twitter could have led to the 2010 cholera outbreak being spotted as much as two weeks earlier.
Of course, one of the reasons we like to treat Google as a triage nurse is that it spares our blushes. It's a fact that is reflected in searches on erectile dysfunction, incontinence and weight loss, their number disproportionate to the cases GPs actually encounter in their surgeries.
And the promise of anonymity has also led us to seek answers to our emotional, ethical and existential dilemmas. Play around with Google's Autocomplete function - which guesses what you're after as you type - and you will be astonished by the subjectivity of the questions people will ask a search engine. Type "Is my husband" and the first suggestion - the most popular query - is "gay". Some of those questions also get asked on anonymous message boards, such as those on the hugely popular Mumsnet, where a question can sometimes get more than 1000 responses. Mumsnetters are often seeking validation but, in the process, offer themselves up for judgment. (A typical query: "Am I being unreasonable to think a mum should have checked before giving my kids sweets at a party?") "It's the intrinsic human nature: we're looking for an oracle," says Floridi. "The new oracles are online and digital - you don't even have to interact with a human being.
You can believe that the infallible digital oracle on the other side of the screen will tell you the ultimate secret, the final answer, the bit that doesn't make sense in your life. I don't think it's a sign of desperation at all - it's us. That's the way we've evolved. We're curious by nature, and curiosity comes with a very strong desire to reach some sort of peace of mind. We have combined the oracle approach with human sharing, and it's a hugely strong temptation to indulge, especially when there's anonymity. But from a philosophical perspective. I'm not sure it's a good idea." Entire websites are set up to feed this need.
Last month the owners of ask.fm, the raison d'etre of which is the question-and-answer format, responded to accusations that it has been linked to more than a dozen suicides among young people who have been bullied on the site.
It may seem inexplicable to an older person that a teenager would ask a question such as "Am I pretty?" of strangers - a typical query on the site - but Floridi isn't surprised. "Again, what the internet is enabling us to do - and I'm not saying it's a good thing - is to outsource internal doubts. Any boy or girl at some point has asked, 'Am I cool? Am I pretty? Am I popular? Are people making fun of me when I'm not around?' If anyone reading this article says, 'Oh, not me,' they're lying. Each of us has that stage of uncertainty: you're shaping yourself, finding your role in life, and it would be unnatural not to have those questions. We are self-conscious in both senses: knowing how awkward we can be, but also being reasonably aware of who we are and want to be. Inevitably, if you put a sweet in front of a person, if someone can have that more or less anonymous interaction and get feedback, that's too tempting."
Floridi also believes that there is an element of what internet experts (and marketers in particular) call "gamification", the turning of everything into a game. "We like to play, and sometimes the more serious the question is, the more likely we are to make a joke of it. If you can gamify the whole thing - 'I'm doing this for fun' - and the feedback is nasty, it doesn't hurt so much." Perhaps that explains not just the relationship questions we ask Google and Mumsnet but why young women post screen grabs of messages sent by wayward lovers on the website HeTexted.com and ask for help interpreting them. It's a way to vent, to undercut the hurt.
"It's safer somehow," says Christine Northam, a counsellor with Relate. "I can understand why you might do it: you might feel desperate - 'I must tell somebody, I must do something.' But really what you're doing is avoiding addressing the issue with the person you need to." For all our advances, communication between the sexes is still fraught: no surprise, then, that Google Autocomplete shows that men ask, "Why won't my wife listen to me?" while women ask the parallel-but-opposite "Why won't my husband talk to me?" Men worry, too, that their wives don't respect them, a reflection, Northam speculates, of the post-feminist crisis in masculinity.
And while women ask why their husband "won't have sex" with them, men show their newfound sentimentality by asking why their wife "won't make love".
But if there is one thing that has changed, it's that on the internet sex is steadily going out of fashion. Sex-related searches declined from 16.8 per cent to 3.8 per cent between 1997 and 2005, according to a Queensland University study, while today the first pornography site appears at number 43 on alexa.com's chart of most visited websites.
"I take it as a good sign," Floridi says with a laugh. "The idea that pornography is really driving everything? I don't think so. What really drives us is information, the things you speak about on a daily basis." That may be, but it does depend on the day.
A couple of years ago when a hotel concierge offered me one of the iPads available to borrow, the search history revealed that the guests who'd had it before definitely weren't looking up museum opening times. Because, of course, like any human we choose to trust, computers can't always keep a secret.
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