The Condition: Existential Googling

by Nishant Batsha

Type “why am I” into a Google search and autocomplete will suggest “why am I here?” Type “why did” and you’ll find “why did I get married?” These questions seem so hackneyed, the kind of generic lamentations you might hear in a bad movie. And yet, Google’s autocomplete algorithm insists that searches relating to marital strife and existence are, in fact, incredibly common. This has led me to wonder again and again: has Google become one of our expressions of existential moaning?

Outside of the confines of autocomplete, we generally know very little about each other’s online searches (although blog metrics can provide surprising — and sometimes bizarre — insights). But back in 2006, AOL’s research division released a text file containing 20 million searches conducted by 650,000 users over a three-month period. While the furor surrounding the privacy implications of the release ultimately led AOL to remove the file from its website and issue an apology, the document remains easily downloadable.

If Google’s autocomplete gives us a broad picture of how people use search engines in times of crisis, these AOL logs provide much more detailed case histories. Take this series from User #71845: “Why do men have online affairs,” “sin to feel pleasure when other hurt,” “why do women accept infedelty.” From User #2413067: “why can’t I save money”. User #2446971: “why didn’t mom want me to get married,” “my ex husband is dying and I would like to speak with him,” “why are you so cold to me on mother’s day,” “why are the men in my life including my son emotionally beating me.” User #3898228: “in speculation the worst feeling in the world is the dawning of realization. when you wake up and realize that nothing is as it should be and everything is wrong. when you wake up and put your situations into words and want to cry. nothing is right.” (Surprisingly, this isn’t a song lyric or a poem, but instead seems to mark a sort of meta-realization: the realization about the dawning of realizations). User #4553622: “why am I not lucky,” followed up with “who are the lucky people.” All of these were turned up from a brief search of one of ten logs, using “why” as my ctrl+f.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the wackiness of AOL users, but I’ve found that in certain moments, either when it’s too late, or I’m too tired, or I can’t quite muster the nerve to click anyone’s name on my Gchat list, I end up typing into a search engine the particular crisis that confronts me. Questions that are self-consciously academic (why is it that emptiness tends to co-exist with our late capitalism?) or simply existential (why is this all so meaningless?) appear in the search box. I’ve confessed this habit to friends, who at first tend to label it as just another idiosyncrasy. After a few drinks, the confession surfaces: they too find themselves seeking solace in Google from time to time. To borrow a turn of phrase from Søren Kierkegaard, we all seem to be suffering the Sickness Unto Search. We are Existential Googlers.

But why? There’s no denying the fact that the Internet is a Big Place. At the 2010 Techonomy Conference, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, repeated what had been kicking around Google’s press releases for a few years: the size of the Internet was about five million terabytes (5.12 billion gigabytes), with Google indexing about 205,000 gigabytes of that information (a measurement from the Dawn of Civilization until 2003 — it’s unclear whether Google just stopped keeping track after that). It should come as no surprise then that, with this amount of data sitting on our desktops, nestled away in our pockets, we channel our existential angst through the search box, believing that somewhere in that tangle of information must be stored some crucial piece of advice.

Or maybe we’re not even looking for advice. Maybe we’re looking for company. Writing this, I looked up to find the carcass of a dead yellowjacket on my windowsill (bear with me for a moment; I promise I’m not suffering from Diminished Attention Span, another Web Disorder). The stark un-digital life and death of the insect caught my attention. This dead bug was unfortunately not alone. If you were to look out my window and glance towards the uppermost outer ledge, you will find a parade of yellowjackets flying to and fro; they have a small nest in a crevice in the bricks above. Sometimes one somehow slips through the small crack of an open space and makes its way inside. Here, it becomes frantic, desperate. In its longing to escape from its newfound prison, it begins to ram its head, over and over again, into the glass, as if hoping to make the window give way by sheer force of will. If I’m out of the room when this happens, I will find its still body later. This one’s analog death brought me back towards humanity. What kind of loneliness does one feel in that kind of isolation?

Most of us don’t need to think about yellowjackets in order to arrive at this question; most of us experience isolation on a regular basis. Blame it on the cruelties of modernity, the banalities of existence, or the Xanax prescription running out, this kind of capital-L “what am I doing in this world” loneliness is pretty common. And we all respond to it in different ways: exercise, chain-smoking, incessant status-updates on Facebook, alcohol, blogging. Despite all the advances in personal technology that seek to link us with each other in a myriad of ways, we are continually confronted with chasms of emptiness. And yet, we return to technology, seeking to find answers in the network that lay behind the search box.

It might be useful if I were able to use these searches to develop some sort of grand unified theory of our collective post-modern psyche. But instead I can only grapple with why I keep entering my questions into the engine. I know that when I do, I’m never quite looking for an answer. Instead, I tend to hope for a brief moment of catharsis. I’ll scan a few search results, sure; maybe I’ll even browse a link or two. But nothing is more satisfying then that moment of Existential Googling and pressing enter. Emotion, search, relief.

I can only speak for myself here; I don’t know the reasons for other people’s searches, just as I don’t know why User #2446971 spent, according to her search timestamps, a sizeable portion of her Mother’s Day asking a data-mining algorithm why her son has abandoned her. Perhaps this is simply another iteration of calling out into the dark, whispering prayers on bended knee, or lying under the stars. The singing of psalms, the singing of qawwali. Augustine and his pears, Sartre and his nausea. A teleology of adaptation, a continual movement of our despair.

I keep thinking of the yellowjackets on my windowsill. They too exist in networks of kith, kin and information. And I can’t help but wonder if, in its last moments, the dying creature secreted forlorn pheromones into the unusually still air of my room. I can only imagine its search query: how did I get into this prison? Why am I here?

Nishant Batsha is a perennial student and sometimes writer. He is currently writing a novel and doing graduate student things.