The Google ABC Book

An abecedarian for today's corporate, weird, hyperconnected world.
More

google_abc.jpg

Google structures so much of life. What we can Google about something is nearly the same thing as what it is.

And it's not just text: With Google Images, you can see what anything or anyone looks like instantly, by algorithmic selection. This is how our children will teach themselves about the world. And yet I wonder. What kinds of warping of the meanings of words takes place in this context? If Google Images is a lens through which to view the world, what is its curvature and focal length? How does it distort what we're looking at?

To figure that out, I took a look at a simple ABC book -- My First Book of ABC and 123 -- the most popular one on Amazon that assigned a single word to each letter. Then I ran each of these words through Google Images to create a Google Alphabet book, the latest in a long line of abecedarians, stretching back hundreds of years.

Some of my findings from this experiment were expected. The Google Alphabet book is more corporate, for example, than any kid's book would be. Apple's logo has replaced the actual apple as the first result for that word. Monster energy drinks has pushed out the fictive beasts of childhood. Wikipedia and Wikimedia make a very strong showing. Google is very dependent on these non-profits for structuring certain types of basic information for the company. The dog image, for example, is simply the photo that appears on Wikipedia's entry for 'dog.' National Geographic's topic pages for animal species also appear high on the list.

But some of Google's choices are bizarre and interesting. Take a look at the entry for violin. The image is from Eofdreams.com, an ad-heavy website purporting to offer dream interpretation that seems to use Google Images as a traffic drift net. Underneath every riff on dreams is a table of random, clearly labeled images on the topic in question. Eofdreams.com appears shockingly high in many a search for common words from violins to hot dogs.

Many of these searches deliver you to the oxbow lakes of the Internet: an out-of-date site for an ice cream company, a Bureau of Labor Statistics page about nurses, a beekeeper in a Cambridgeshire village, the good works of a Swede, a gaming page dedicated to the lions of the game Animal Crossing, a British journalist's military blog.

Making these searches is like taking a road trip through the Internet, trying to avoid the major highways. Sure you end up on I-Wikipedia sometimes, but most of the hours are spent trundling along some forgotten state route finding stories about teenage yo-yo stars and nude portraits of people with octopuses.

Every ABC book is defined by its simplicity, including this one, but nothing is simple when it's embedded in a global network.

A is for apple.

a_apple3.jpg

Top Image: Apple's corporate logo.

Appears on: Forbes.com

This image appears in a story entitled, "Debt-Averse Apple Sets 6-part Bond Deal To Establish Funding Yield Curve." The iteration of the logo dates from shortly after Steve Jobs' return to the company in 1997. Welcome to the new alphabet. 

B is for bee.

b_bee.jpg

Top Image: A photograph of a common worker honeybee.

Appears on: wmconnolley.org.uk

This image of a honeybee appears on the personal webpage William Connolley, a resident of the village of Coton in Cambridgeshire in the UK. Connolley is a beekeeper, he says, and maintains a very simple (like 1990s simple) webpage with information about the beekeepers in his village and some general information about bees ("Bees are cute furry little creatures and generally quite safe"). It's in that section that we find the honeybee image. It's unclear when it was taken. (The homepage comes with the disclaimer, "Hello, and welcome to my web page. Its sadly out of date, and is likely to stay that way.")

C is for cat.

c_cat2.jpg

Top Image: A long-haired cat sitting on a white comforter.

Appears on: Petfinder.com

This is a stock image from Getty Images' Thinkstock, apparently. It appears in an article about how to pick a cat litter and a few dozen other places around the Internet, but I could not track down the source image (despite several searches for "self-satisfied cat"). Perhaps appropriately, the canonical kitty remains mysterious.

D is for dog.

d_dog.jpg
Top Image: A yellow lab (of course).


Appears on: Wikipedia.org

This photograph was taken by the Wikipedia user, Elf, who "spent over two intense editing years (Jan 2004-April 2006) here as a Wikipediholic, primarily focusing on dog-related articles." This photography was taken during October 2004 in Turlock, California at the Nunes Agility Field. It's also the top image on Wikipedia's dog page, making this dog one of the more Internet-famous canines in the world.

E is for elephant.

e_elephant.jpg

Top Image: An African elephant.

Appears on: NationalGeographic.com

National Geographic maintains an encyclopedia of some animals, including the African elephant represented here. The image was captured by the South African filmmaker and photographer, Beverly Joubert. She and her husband, Dereck, make conservation films in Africa. They are explorers-in-residence at NatGeo.

F is for fruits.

f_fruits.jpg

Top Image: Still-life of several fruit varieties on a black background.

Appears on: Wikipedia.org.

Bananas, pears, strawberries, grapes, oranges, and apples all make an appearance in this image, which I must admit screams, "Fruits!" The photograph is the work of Bill Ebbessen, who creates a lot of images for Wikipedia under the username atomicbre. In addition to his work with fruits, Ebbessen has provided photography for many articles in the nuclear field.

G is for guitar.

g_guitar2.jpg

Top Image: An acoustic guitar.

Appears on: Wikimedia.org

Frankly, this one is a little disappointing. Of all the guitars in the world, we get this folksy number. It's a "'Di Giorgio classic guitar', model 'Amazonia', made in Brazil" according to its photographer, user PJ. PJ is Swedish and one of his other wikihobbies is recording common phrases in Swedish like "God jul och gott nytt år," which means "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year," and uploading them to Wikimedia.

H is for hats.

h_hats.jpg

Top Image: A big, red hat.

Appears on: Fanpop.com

Fanpop is a network of niche fan clubs for everything from Justin Bieber and Arrested Development to ... umm... hats, including this one. The hats club is rather small, 168 members, which makes sense. Not that hats are not loveable -- I have several hats, myself -- but do hats really need a fan club? They don't hand out autographs or scandalize the bourgeoisie. Also, they are inanimate objects.

One fun fact from the Hats fan club: 83 percent of its members like floppy hats, according to a poll on the site. 

I is for ice cream.

i_icecream.jpg

Top Image: Two scoops of chocolate ice cream with whip cream and a waffle slice in a tall glass

Appears on: Arcticicecream.net

Arctic Ice Cream is an ice cream maker near Trenton, New Jersey. They've been around since 1931 and bring dairy delight down the shore. Why has their ice cream image become the canonical one? This one is more mystifying than the rest of these images. Most of these scream whatever they are, but this one is actually more complex than the other images on the page, like this simple cone in third place.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In