Saturday, December 13, 2008

Google by numbers

I've noticed an interesting trend lately, whereby a writer makes an expository point by way of an offhand reference to the sheer numeric quantities of a Google search.

For instance: Patricia Marx, in a recent article on sale shopping in the poor economy, notes: "If you type 'discount' and 'New York' into Google, you will be presented with 57,944 local business results."

Second case: In the Modern Language Association's 2008 issue of Profession, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in a provocative article about teaching Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to American soldiers, observes: "Modernity generates hearts of darkness with an efficiency, and on a scale, that could only be called modern. Google 'Heart of Darkness' and 'Joseph Conrad' and you get fewer than 400,000 entries; leave off Conrad so that you are looking not for a text but a concept, and you get nearly 2,000,000" (75).

I, too, have resorted to a Google search in my writing. In a piece I am currently working on concerning Wallace Stevens's widely anthologized poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," I have been interested in the digital image saturation of blackbird citing in Google Images (1,120,000 hits) compared with Stevens's enigmatic yet economically sparse allusions to this form of avian imagery.

The truth, however, is that practically every Google search yields impressive results in terms of pure 'hits'. What do we learn from Google by numbers? Through Google do we glimpse the sublime aura of the Information Age? Or, seen differently, might Google always be reasserting the inescapability of finitude, even if it lies at the end of a million web pages?