Interview: "The 'Superficial' Webby Mind"
Nicholas Carr speaks with Benjamin Carlson about why his life has been happier since he started spending less time online.
I type the letter p into Google’s search box, and a list of 10 suggested keywords, starting with pandora and concluding with people magazine, appears just beneath my cursor. I type an r after the p, and the list refreshes itself. Now it begins with priceline and ends with pregnancy calculator. I add an o. The list updates again, going from prom dresses to proxy sites.
Google is reading my mind—or trying to. Drawing on the terabytes of data it collects on people’s search queries, it predicts, with each letter I type, what I’m most likely to be looking for. The company formally introduced the automatic recommendation of search terms in 2008, after a few years of testing. It’s been tweaking the service, which it calls Google Suggest, ever since. This past spring, it rolled out the latest enhancement, which tailors suggestions to a searcher’s particular city.
Google Suggest, like the similar services offered by other search engines, streamlines the discovery of information. When you click on a suggestion, you arrive at a page of search results, and the accompanying advertisements, a little faster than you would have, had you typed out the query yourself. Google Suggest is technically remarkable. It testifies to the power of cloud computing—the serving-up of software and information from big, distant data centers rather than from a computer’s own hard drive. When I typed that first p, the letter was beamed across the Internet to a Google server in a building hundreds of miles away. The server read the letter, gathered 10 popular search terms beginning with p, and shot the list back to my screen. This intricate data processing took less than a second. It felt magical.