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Happy Birthday Google?

Krissy Clark

If you Google the phrase "Google's birthday," one of the answers that comes up says the company's been open for business ten years as of this weekend, September 7. Another result says the tenth anniversary's still not for another couple weeks. Another says it was a few days ago. It's almost as if you can't trust what you read online. Google officials say the tenth birthday is sometime in September, "depending on when people feel like having cake." But even if the exact date is lost to history, one thing that's certain is how much a part of our lives Google has become in these last ten(ish) years. Google Maps, Google Earth, Google News. We Google so much, it's an actual verb now. And much has been written about whether it's making us smarter, making us stupider, or just plain changing the way our brains work. But back to that idea of people having cake together. Now that so many topics can be explored with Google, what's really left to talk about when you get together with friends to celebrate, or enjoy people's company?

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I love dinner parties. I love getting friends together with food and wine to talk about stuff: mundane stuff, sublime stuff, the story of a friend's wedding day (surprisingly romantic, she tells me, even though it was at City Hall), a discussion about Russian Farmer's cheese (similar, but better than store-bought cottage cheese). I like to think there's no limit to where the conversation might go. But recently, I discovered, there is a limit.

That limit is Matt Damon. At least, according to my friend Russ. "If we're talking about who starred in movies with Matt Damon," he explained at a recent party I threw, "that's a stupid conversation. Because robots can have that conversation."

It turns out Russ, who is a computer programmer, has a list of things people should not talk about at dinner parties anymore: Matt Damon, YouTube videos, Sarah Palin's age, or any other "really boring thing that can be answered by Google," he told me. "Like if someone were to call me to be like 'How do I get to your house?' I'd be like, 'Do you have a computer?'"

People just shouldn't waste human thought on questions that can be easily solved on the Internet, Russ said. "Look it up later. You should move on to discussing something else. It's Wangston's Law."

Never heard of Wangston's Law before? That's because Russ made it up. The idea and the name. "'Wangston' is just a word I like," he said, and took a sip of wine.

A made-up law, but an interesting one. Still new of course, so it is understandable that the folks at Google headquarters were not quite sure what to make of it when I brought it to them. "Hmmm," was RJ Pittman's first response. He's a director of project management for Google's Search Properties. "Um, I'd probably go the other direction. The more pervasive an information tool like Google is, the more interesting a conversation can become." Confronted with a Google-able question at a dinner party, Pittman says he is usually the first to pull out his mobile phone and find the answer right then and there. "Because everybody's dying to know," he says. "And I think Google just adds an extra element of interest, knowledge and bed of facts to go along with the conversation, that I find actually makes it more entertaining."

But what if there is something to this Wangston thing? What if we eventually decide that whole swaths of small talk should be off limits because Google can do them better? What will we have left to talk about?

"Is there free will?" would be a good starting point, suggests John Perry, host of the radio show Philosophy Talk, and a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, where Google was conceived. Perry mulls over other worthy conversation topics. "John Stuart Mill asked us 'Is it better to be a pig satisfied, or a Socrates unsatisfied?'"

We are sitting by a fountain near the Stanford's Green Library, pondering these big questions. And I wonder if all my dinner table chat could be this deep.

Then Perry breaks it to me: Even his dinner table chat isn't usually this deep.

"More typically, I make some claim, my son says 'You're wrong', I say 'No I'm not.' He says 'Well, should we go look at Google?' and I just say 'Oh, well, I'm probably wrong,'" Perry says. "For a bullshitter like me, Google seems like a lot of work."

Around the corner from where we're talking, I can see the loading dock where workers pack up library books and ship them to Google so they can be digitized for the Google Books project.

Back at my dinner party, a funny thing happened when my friend Russ first started explaining Wangston's Law. My laptop happened to be on the kitchen counter. And my friend Christina, who, not surprisingly, had never heard of Wangston's Law, Googled the phrase while Russ was talking. Only three links came up, all for Russ's blog entry on the subject.

She read it aloud. "Humans should not waste their time discussing a question that can be answered by a robot (Google, Wikipedia, etc.)"

Of course, the fact that Wangston's Law could be found on Google in the first place meant that, according to the law, we should have immediately stopped discussing the law. Or something like that. When you start trying to follow Wangston's Law, things get tricky. Come to think of it, the words that you are reading right now are on the Internet. Maybe you found them on Google. I just hope you're not at a dinner party right now.

Comments

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  • By Christina Amini

    From San Francisco, CA, 09/08/2008

    Here's Wangston's law, in case you were too tired to Google it: http://twtitw.firebus.com/node/22

    The thing is, I think a lot of things are interesting, and a lot of things are boring. You can't use a law or google to help you tell which is which.

    By Christina Amini

    From San Francisco, CA, 09/08/2008

    Here's Wangston's law, in case you were too tired to Google it: http://twtitw.firebus.com/node/22

    The thing is, I think a lot of things are interesting, and a lot of things are boring. You can't use a law or google to help you tell which is which.

    By Beth Weigel

    From Juneau, AK, 09/06/2008

    Your "Happy Birthday Google" story compels me to ask, "What do we do if Google is wrong?" While initially one might say, it is not Google that is wrong but rather the person that has posted the information to the web, I offer you this example that has become an almost daily frustration in my life.

    I work for a small non-profit nature education organization, Discovery Southeast, in Juneau, Alaska. About a year ago, we started receiving calls for the Juneau-Douglas High School, our local high school. While we work with the school district and are in the business of education, we are not the high school. One caller finally alerted me to the fact that when you google Juneau-Douglas High School, our number is the phone number that comes up. I tested this and indeed our phone number (463-1500) comes up in the google generated listing. The high school's number is very similar (523-1500) and differs only in the three digit local prefix.

    After the discovery, we set out to correct the mistake. Not finding a way to fix this in Google's many help pages, we called Google. Google insisted it was not their mistake but whoever posted the information. I explained that they were generating the listing. They insisted that somewhere out there someone had listed the information wrong and the web crawler had collected it, which resulted in the erroneous generated listing. I checked the high school web-site and the information was right. We enlisted the help of the high school communications/IT technology person. Together we searched for the wrong information out there. We found nothing. As the calls increased to our office we contacted Google again, no one knew how to fix the problem. My co-worker keeps a log of how many calls we take on behalf of the high school which can be up to a dozen a day.

    After a year, we are no closer to resolving the problem and I think this is one issue you can't google to find the answer!

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