If they were young, they googled the things they didn’t know. Some were things they were supposed to know for school, like the habits of the hammerhead shark, the perfect squares under a hundred, the phrase “rite of passage.” When they got bored, they googled images of peace signs, photographs of rainbows, a video of a girl singing about Friday and another of a baby laughing and laughing. They googled Anne Hathaway. If they were boys, they googled how to build a bomb. If they could get on the computer when their parents weren’t home, they googled things they weren’t supposed to know about, things like “sodomy” and “lesbian.” Then they cleared the search history and googled “hammerhead shark.”
If they were old, they googled the things they had forgotten: Names of actors and movies and hurricanes, old sports scores, the vice president under Carter, the ingredients in a Manhattan, the hours of the liquor store, “liquor stores open Sunday,” directions. They googled things that had escaped them: The definition of feckless, a synonym for regime, most of the answers to the Sunday crossword puzzle. They googled remedies for burns and bee stings.
If they were lonely, they googled “sex.” They googled “sex xxx.” They googled long-lost lab partners, old boyfriends, their ex-husband’s new girlfriend. They googled cute pictures of baby koalas. They googled the word lonely. They googled “distended stomach,” “nosebleed that won’t stop,” “numbness,” “insomnia” and “cancer symptoms.”
The things they googled were determined by forgetfulness, by need, by desire, by curiosity, and by the endless availability of information. In fact, there was no point in remembering anything except how to google. They didn’t even have to remember what they were googling: As soon as they’d typed “When does g—”, just that much, Google already knew the question was when Glee Season Three would begin. When they googled “pleonism,” Google politely looked up pleonasm. Google never made them feel bad for not knowing.
So they googled how to lose weight and pictures of psoriasis and checklists for diagnosing attention-deficit disorder. If they were pregnant, there was no end to their googling. Others googled when it would rain and how much it would rain and when to plant their gardens. They googled the tides and the seasons. They googled sunrise and sunset. They googled births and deaths. They googled themselves, which was sometimes unsettling, turning up Boston Marathon times and class reunions and even obituaries not their own.
How did they live before Google, they wondered. How did anyone know anything? How did anyone remember, while driving through Mohntown, Pennsylvania, the name of the young blonde actress in the movie “Witness” who was from that town?
When they were hungry, they googled “recipe chard cannellini beans,” “recipe apple gingersnap,” or “recipe rice noodle salad.” How to freeze tomatoes. How to peel and seed tomatoes. Whether you can add grated zucchini to cornbread mix. How to tell if an egg is rotten, and if one egg is rotten, are all the others rotten too? “Best no-egg cornbread.” “Best no-egg omelette.” “Best restaurant brunch.”
Plagued by the familiarity of an essay they had read, they googled “The Things They Googled,” and again Google was there before they’d finished typing. It was a reference to the short story “The Things They Carried,” of course, the beautiful Vietnam War story by Tim O’Brien. Google showed them where to read it online, and some dove in right away, while others ordered used copies of the collection for 99 cents plus shipping, and others still reserved a copy at their local libraries.
But after all the searching and finding, all the slapped foreheads and the ahas, after all of it, there was still something missing. It was the size of a gingersnap, a two-week-old koala, a liquor store. It looked a bit like Kelly McGillis or Walter Mondale. It was excellent for soothing burns and heartaches. It was not in their computer or their phone or on any file server anywhere. Older search engines would be required.
This essay is excerpted from the short e-collection, “Guesswork,” by longtime NPR commentator Marion Winik, author of “The Glen Rock Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and many other books. She writes a column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. Reach her @marionwinik.