Science Focus - the home of BBC Science Focus Magazine

Why Google is just a massive to-do list

Published: 30th May, 2022 at 04:00
Subscribe to BBC Science Focus Magazine and get 6 issues for just £9.99

It’s the world’s most popular search engine, but ultimately, it’s just helping us to tick off our intentions.

Most people think of Google as a search engine. But inside the building, they know what it really is: a collection of intentions.

Advertisement

Long before digital technology cornered the market on intentions, we were writing them down using a pen under the heading ‘To Do’. I am a great maker of these kinds of lists – daily tasks, weekly workflow, fantasy holiday destinations, bucket lists. I’ve used special apps, special pads of paper, special notebooks. All of these things let me think I’m a few crossed-off words away from being my best self. And that is what a search engine does too: it moves what you want done one step forward.

A friend has been haphazardly documenting other people’s shopping lists for several years. When she discovers one discarded in the bottom of a trolley, she takes a photo and posts it online. These are little windows into the world of the person whose hands held the handles before her. It’s easy to get lost in the storytelling crumbs. Taken out of context, they say volumes. Taken in aggregate, lists can be even more revealing.

Recently, there was an exhibition at the Museum of Everyday Life in rural Vermont called A Life In Lists And Notes. These weren’t lists and notes from notable people, but everyday folks who dug through their pockets and drawers to participate in a collection of mostly humdrum desires. As one commentator put it, “Only when put all together do we realise that to-do lists are important records of how we spend our time.”

Google knows all this. It takes our to-do intentions and it serves up the solutions, based on the aggregated to-dos of people who it thinks are just like us. Its killer innovation was to create an algorithm that collects, analyses and processes our wants in the context of the wants of everyone else who uses its service, long after we might have forgotten we wanted them.

The problem is, Google can’t distinguish between a personally more valuable want and something we just need to cross off a list to move onto the next thing. Nor can it tell if we’re messing with it.

Illustration of people doing various tasks
© Scott Balmer

Comedian and author Morgan Bassichis began writing lists each Monday in 2017. In the list dated 21/8/17, “Weigh in on the antisemitism debates online” is crossed out and is followed by “Explore bracelets!”. By 18/3/19, item one was “Find a therapist who can work quickly.”

The lists were archives of the emotional chaos they felt about the political situation in the US of that time, notes for their stand-up act, and a record of the routine and the impossible. The collection was published in 2020 as The Odd Years, and the book makes compelling and surreal reading. But it leaves the reader unsure about whether anything ever got done.

Which brings us back to Google. Things gets complicated when our to-dos are never crossed off, never forgotten, and are applied without nuance or context to the person who wrote them down. Aggregating intentions has made the company far more money than the people who published the list apps or the clever notepads. But has the human got lost in the process?

Read more from Aleks Krotoski:

Advertisement

Authors

Social psychologist, broadcaster and journalist. She writes and broadcasts about technology and interactivity, and she presents Digital Human on BBC Radio 4. She is the author of Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content