The Google ABC Book

An abecedarian for today's corporate, weird, hyperconnected world.
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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Many of these searches deliver you to the oxbow lakes of the Internet: an out-of-date site for an ice cream company, a Bureau of Labor Statistics page about nurses, a beekeeper in a Cambridgeshire village, the good works of a Swede, a gaming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.

J is for jack-in-the-box.

j_jack.jpg

Top Image: A plush Jack-in-the-box.

Appears on: Wikipedia.org.

Score another one for Wikipedia (how dependent is Google on Wikipedia? Very, very). But wait! This image actually was created by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and was released along with a 2003 recall of 63,000 Jacks in boxes. "A spring mechanism attached to the lid can break and detach from the toy, posing a choking hazard to young children," the CPSC wrote, although no injuries were reported.

K is for kangaroo.

k_kangaroo.jpg

Top image: A kangaroo with a joey in the pouch.

Appears on: CuteOverload.com NationalGeographic.com

Google loves NatGeo's animal summary pages, apparently. But this is definitely the cutest photograph in the list. It was taken by renowned wildlife photographer Nicole Duplaix.

L is for lion.

l_lion.jpg

Top image: A male lion's head.

Appears on: Wikia.com

Well, no arguing here. That's the lioniest lion I've ever seen. But it's embedded on a page for the Nintendo game, Animal Crossing. Why? "Lions are a species of villagers in the Animal Crossing series. They are one of three types of large cat that appear in the games. The Lion characters are all males because they have all a mane( female lions, called lionesses, don't have manes.)," Wikia says. Or at least, this is one of the many pages on which the image appears, none of which appear indicate the provenance of the photograph.

M is for monster.

m_monster.jpg

Top Image: Monster energy drinks logo.

Appears on: http://istandardproducers.com

It's not exactly Where the Wild Things Are. And yes, that breaks my heart. And it doesn't even appear on Monster's own site! iStandard Producers is a company's that purports to help out up-and-coming music producers.

N is for nurse.

n_nurse.jpg

Top Image: A nurse with a pen talking to a doctor

Appears on: BLS.gov

This nurse appears on a page maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics about the occupational outlook for registered nurses. We find their median pay was $64,690 in 2010, for example. There are several images of nurses on the page, but for whatever reason, Google found this one the nursiest, despite an irrelevant file name.

O is for octopus.

o_octopus.jpg

Top Image: An octopus.

Appears on: Howstuffworks.com

This octopus illustrates a story on "How octopuses work," but it's originally a stock image by Corbis. Sadly, I searched through all 1,804 Corbis images labeled octopus, but couldn't find it. Strangely, there's a disturbing number of naked people with octopuses in the Corbis archive. Search at your own risk is all I'm saying.

P is for panda.

p_panda.jpg

Top Image: A panda.

Appears on: Worldwildlife.org

Well, this one makes sense. The panda image appears on a World Wildlife Fund page dedicated to saving the 1,600 that remain in the wild.

Q is for queen.

q_queen.jpg

Top Image: A portrait of Queen Elizabeth (of course)

Can I be faulted for being a little disappointed that Freddie Mercury was not the top result? (Queen, the band, was the #2 image.) In any case, this image appears on military blogger Michael Yon's site. It's embedded in a post that jokingly begins, "In light of your failure in recent years to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately." Fair enough. But it turns out that the text Yon posted has a "long and convoluted" history, including a false attribution to John Cleese, according to the Snopes entry on "Revocation of Independence."

R is for robot.

r_robot.jpg

Top Image: A Sony Qrio Robot 2

Appears on: Wikimedia.org

Congratulations, Sony! Your robot from 2004 remains the canonical representation of the robot in Google Images. This particular photo was taken by a German user at RoboCup 2004 in Portugal. Then another user named Jorge Barrios excised the background, leaving just the robot floating on a transparent background.

S is for sock.

s_sock.jpg

Top Image: Drawing of a white sock with red accents

Appears on: lbrm.org

This sock appears on the website of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, a group that helps the homeless in southern California. It illustrated a post about last summer's "sock drive," sponsored by Disney. The drive ended last September; no word's been posted on how many socks were collected for the needy. The sock drawing is a common, though far from ubiquitous, illustration on the web.

T is for toy.

t_toy.jpg

Top Image: Rubik's cube

Appears on: Wikipedia.org

Nerds always win on the Internet. QED.

U is for unicorn.

u_unicorn.jpg

Top Image: Beautiful white unicorn with flashing dark eyes in full rear

Appears on: Giantbomb.com

Tell you what: that's a beautiful unicorn right there. It appears with many other unicorn images on a videogame website owned by CBS Interactive called Giant Bomb. It's one of the site's "concept" pages on a wiki; the concept is the unicorn itself. And we learn the following delightful things about the unicorn.

The Unicorn is one of the few magical creatures not meant to inspire fear, unlike dragons, or chimeras. In most video games where Unicorns appear, they are enchanted, tranquil beasts. Their horns commonly have magical properties. In Castle Crashers, for example, a unicorn horn can be employed as a weapon. Conversely, in Viva Pinata, Unicorn horns can be used for healing," someone wrote. "According to Leonardo da Vinci, the ideal method of capturing a Unicorn was to have a virgin in your midst. A Unicorn that sees a "fair maiden" is said to lower its inhibitions, and fall asleep in its lap shortly afterward. This would give you an opportunity to catch the Unicorn."

That's some good unicorn summation, no? Conversely, it could be said that you would not be prepared to deal with a unicorn in real life or a videogame on the basis of this crappy stub.

V is for violin.

v_violin.jpg

Top Image: A violin

Appears on: Eofdreams.com

This is a stock image of a violin. It appears on a *dream interpretation* site. "To see or play the violin in a dream means that your home will always be full of peace and harmony," a content farmer wrote. "For a young woman, to dream of playing the violin promises generous gifts to her. If eerie sounds are produced by a bow signifies that her hopes are not fated to come true. A broken violin portends possible serious losses and separation."

Another interesting thing about this dream interpretation site is that after each description of a particular object's significance, there is a set of ads and then a table of images of the thing described. So, after you learn that eating a hot dog in a dream means "in reality you don't differ with fastidiousness, and you prefer practicality," you can see 10 apparently random images of hot dogs stolen from somewhere all nicely labeled hot-dog-01, hot-dog-02, etc. Why do they do this? Do they think you can dream of hot dogs but not know what they look like? No, my suspicion is that they use Google Images to bring people to the site; this is a dream interpretation site search-engine optimized for Google Images specifically. (Side note: what would dreaming about Google mean?)

W is for watermelon.

w_watermelon.jpg

Top Image: Three watermelon wedges.

Appears on: Souplantation.com

This image appears on the blog of a restaurant chain called Souplantation. (They must have a less fraught relationship with the word and idea of a plantation than I do?) The post details the local watermelon grower the company uses in Texas, but the image is a stock watermelon photograph.

X is for x-ray.

x_xray.jpg

Top Image: An "x-ray" image of an adult human and child

Appears on: Time.com

This image comes from a gallery that Time.com ran of photographer Nick Veasey's work. It's quite beautiful, but Veasey says he embellishes his images, so it may not be the best representation of an actual x-ray. For that, I'd recommend this image.

Y is for yo-yo.

y_yoyo.jpg

Top Image: A kid yo-yoing, apparently at a competition.

Appears on: Wikipedia.org

"1A (string tricks) division finalist, Augie Fash, at the 2004 US nationals in Chico, California." If you're wondering, Fash, who was known as El Yo-Yo, is still around. He appears to have quit the yo-yo game with this intensely dramatic YouTube video in 2012. But he's back and *sponsored* by C3YoYoDesign, the "the first Professional Yoyo company in Hong Kong." They "create high-performance yoyo for professional players" like Fash. According to one blog post, Fash is "prepping a new video that will ROCK YOUR FACE OFF!" Here's the damn-near heroic teaser.

Z is for zebra.

z_zebra.jpg

Top Image: Several zebras, one braying.

Appears on: NationalGeographic.com

This may appear to be a boring ending to this strange journey through the Internet, BUT it turns out this image was taken by Chris Johns, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic since 2005.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. 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 Web site 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.

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