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Jim Walker: Autocompletion as divine guidance

Don't Take Me Seriously

Posted: August 19, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 19, 2011 1:57 a.m.
 

A couple of days ago, one of my colleagues complained that Google’s autocomplete suggestions were becoming frighteningly intuitive. Halfway through typing her search phrase, the complete phrase she had in her head was already showing up in grayed-out type in the search window.

You know, even for weird stuff.

Now, if you Google “Google Autocomplete,” you get the following explanation:

“As you type, Google’s algorithm predicts and displays search queries based on other users’ search activities. … You may see search queries from relevant searches that you’ve done in the past.”

It all seems so friendly and helpful and harmless, doesn’t it?

Well, that depends on who is in charge of the algorithm. I mean, think about it. With a minor tweak, some subversive could alter the formula so that phrases with a certain slant on things would always show up as the top suggestions. Hapless fools like me would then, out of laziness, click on these things and become brainwashed by whichever ideology or product promotion was favored in the calculations.

Well, that’s the paranoid perspective, anyway. And for another column, maybe.

But let’s take a look on the hopeful side.

I asked myself, “What if God could work through Google?” Every cosmic and eternal and existential question I had in my sputtering little brain might have the answer phrase lined up right there in the queue.

All I would have to do is type a word or two in the search window, and (heavenly choir “hallelujah” here), the rest of my search for the meaning of existence would autocomplete. I’d be one click away from enlightenment.

Now, in ages past, you might have had to fast and pray for days to receive such heavenly answers. You might have had to sacrifice a goat and make lots of promises about, you know, never doing that thing you do again. And even then, you’d have to interpret your resultant feelings and surrounding signs and events to determine what the proper course of action would be. I mean, Moses was the only one who got his answers in the written form.

But now, maybe I could, I wondered, get them with a simple query and click.

So, feeling a bit broken, empty and purposeless these days. … I tried one.

My intended query: “Where do I go from …  here?”

Autocomplete suggestion: “Where do I go from … you?” Accepting this suggestion, because it seemed kind of appropriate to my recent circumstances, I clicked to what were lyrics … “Where do I go to get over the fact, you got on a plane and you ain’t coming back?”

My interpretation: God thinks he’s funny, and was rubbing it in.

So I tried again.

My query: Not accepting the autocomplete this time, I typed “Where do I go from here?”

Top search result: More lyrics, this time from “Pocahontas II.” “The Earth is cold, the fields are bare, the branches fold against the wind that’s everywhere.”

“Really?” I muttered. 

My interpretation: God not only thinks he’s funny, he doesn’t know when to back off.

“Dude, I’m suffering here. Throw me a bone,” I said.

But I gave it another shot.

My query: Changing it up a bit, I went with, “What will my future hold?”

Autocomplete: This led me to another lyric, something about running and skipping, from “My Little Pony.”

“Oh, come on!” I exclaimed.

My interpretation: This was not only insulting, it made no sense at all. So I backed up and looked at the bigger picture.

“Oh!” I shouted in pleased surprise. “Now I get it — lyrics — I am supposed to fulfill my destiny by becoming a songwriter.”

And I was just about to enroll in a very expensive online songwriting course, when I thought about all those times I had Googled “lyrics” when working on these columns in the past — which would definitely affect my autocomplete algorithm.

And so, I was extremely disappointed to conclude that it was only math at work, after all.

I assumed that any divine advice, if given, had been, “Figure it out for yourself.”

But I gave it one more try, just for giggles. “What will my future hold?” And the autocomplete led me to one final lyric:

“What does your closest future hold? Day at a time, I suppose.”

Well, it was an answer.

And a pretty good one, actually.

Maybe there is something to this God-through-Google thing after all.

Once again, Walker claims the rights to any permutations of this story idea, in all media, and in perpetuity. Comment at jwalker@the-signal.com or @DontSeriously.

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