No Miscellaneous Allowed
(Stand back) Thoughts at Large By Mary Meldrum
There was a family-owned book store that I remember as a child. There were worn out chairs and stools scattered about in the most abrasively anti-feng shui fashion that could be managed. Every place there was not a book, there was a seat that was shamelessly ill-fitted for the space it occupied in the most oddly matched, multi-colored, zig-zaggity, faded patterns that could be found across the globe. It was truly a masterpiece of dusty chaos. And it felt like home. You could tuck away in the back of a dark alley of books, curl up on a worn out tartan plaid footstool that was older than rocks and lose yourself in a story that delivered you to far-off lands, seas and adventures.
The small bookstore survived 2 wars, 5 Presidents and one small fire only to succumb to the big box invasion a few years back along with all the other Ma and Pa shops that were undercut by low prices, sexy selection and razor-sharp marketing. In some ways it was gratifying to see the big box bookstores that replaced my little cubby book shop get their comeuppance a short time later with same treatment by the Online Book King, Amazon who soundly spanked their market share, and they all had to close their doors. Never has Karma been so swift for an entire industry.
What I missed most about the little bookstore was the miscellaneous section where you could find actual bins of old books – mostly paperbacks – that described places, stories and situations that I didn’t even know existed. The words and infrequent pictures described foreign topics and circumstances that were other-worldly to me. I loved to dig into those miscellaneous titles and find a treasure to share my afternoon with. The fact that it was an unexpected find made me relish the story it unfolded that much more delicious. In my predictable rise-at-7, dinner-at-6, bedtime-at-9 suburban life, it was a way that I could totally surprise myself.
Fast-forward several decades to 2014. Outside of a rare and particularly antique garage sale, my ability to find things I never expected has all but vanished. My world – and everyone else’s – has been handed over to the algorithm bots. My viewing habits have been studied and combined with other information regarding my life and location to produce the most optimized information at my fingertips, courtesy of Captain Google. Every search I execute on the internet bounces information about who I am to a highly sophisticated database that churns out a recipe for sending me content that is increasingly targeted for my uniquely individual tastes and preferences. In fact, the math has become so genius that Google is instantly able to recommend choices based on thousands of microgenres that categorize content for me. Super.
The reality is these are not true recommendations.
Internet searches are intensely striated analyses of what you want based on data collected and factored into what you have asked for before. The choices are aligned with you. They match your world. They give you matches and they give you unlimited access. “You like vanilla? We’ve got 4,000,000 kinds of vanilla for you!” oozes Captain Google. What if I wake up one day and want chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, or cherries jubilee, or sorbet?
What I am missing is the stuff that would represent that glorious miscellaneous bin at my old bookstore. But there is a much deeper loss than that. What is really missing is the hunt, the small personal victory of discovering something extraordinary in an otherwise ordinary day. Google (and other search engines) have eliminated the simple adventure of being able to do my own archeology. Their method for content curation has figured me out, and put all the things that they “know” that I will enjoy at my fingertips. The problem is that there might be some really cool things out there that I am unaware of, and I would likely enjoy if I could discover them. I am being siloed into choices by Google’s highly acclaimed algorithmic triumph and efficient storage of my history. The irony that I am being corralled by my curiosity is not lost on me.
The other thing working against me in Googleland is that the list of curated items that Google produces for me in my search may bring 1,200,000 results, but competition for being first in the Google queue is a matter of profit for any business on the internet. So although I really prefer to buy a beautiful, handmade sarong from a woman named Maia with 5 children in the backwaters of Nigeria because I love her dresses, her story, and I want to help her, I do not even know that she exists because Macy’s and Target have bought my attention on page one of my Google search. Google keeps me safe and secure with search results conveniently located within a ten or twenty mile radius of my zip code, and of course, categorized based on my previous Google searches. I am being micromanaged and handled.
Google thinks it is being helpful, but it is not. In a very real sense, I have been bound and routed by the internet process and big business. Small business, craft, art and the human condition have been pounded to the bottom of the competitive internet universe. There are no villages in this universe. Only stars.
I miss my dusty bookstore. I miss the hunt.
The solution for me – and let’s face it, this is all about me – would be a kill switch. A button on the Google home page that would turn off the search engine optimization and deliver to me all the glorious treasures that I know abound on this amazing planet. No sorting, routing, herding or managing my searches. Just let me poke around and explore without Google monetizing my selection.
Ah…monetizing. That is why I will never get my kill switch.