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What We Search For Online Reveals A Lot

By Dhruv Ramnath, MA Social Anthropology

I have often wondered why people are fascinated by computer screens when they are in public spaces. When a stranger, or a neighbour in your hostel, stands behind you to peer over your computer screen it is as though he has never seen a computer screen in his life! In his room, he takes out his computer and mobile phone and taps out his wanton thoughts, sometimes searches for the most abominable things, and listens to pop music. Yet when it comes to looking at another person’s computer, he, the gazer, is so curious and so vicariously involved in observing the other that it is as though googling is something he does only in private. The gazer wants to know what the other is doing in his free time, what his secrets are, as our search engines tell us more than data—they speak out our innermost desires. Do we not all use search engines all the time? This is how the world works today: intense information-retrieval.

When we search for words on the internet that is currently monopolised by google, we are actually searching inside our minds for the meanings of those words. These meanings are not necessarily from the dictionary; they are meanings that are historically and intuitively constructed. Search engines are not outside us; they reside in us, and Dickens and Shakespeare wrote the best English in the world owing to their recognition of what was already there in the mind, built up in the brain as grey matter, and their publications, constructed by them, were built by an older vocabulary. This is the spectre of genius: the most original product wins. Suddenly my generation is stupid because we need softwares to correct our grammar. In a time when there were no softwares to do the work for you, you slogged it out. You read, wrote, read, and wrote with hardly any readership. There is nothing bad or good in the reality of computer operations—one has to simply discover that they mimic what is done mentally.

Had it not been for a man called Big Ben, I would not have been acquainted with the world of computers. Ben told me everything I need to know about its secrets. He helped me set up a blog, which, I find, still exists but not in its earlier form. He could not help me with the comments written in my name. Surely this sort of cyber behaviour in an age when data travel and cyber laws are not firmly in place, ought to become news. “Dhruv writes a comment” gets more hits than “Trump is a Skunk”. Big Ben taught me that the internet is full of trolls and anonymity, it is a great big swamp like a kitchen in a boy’s hostel. You need to know when someone posts something about you, it may take a long time to get it off the web, and you need to know how to handle the heat. You may have to delete digital crypts if you wash your dirty linen in public. It is this ‘public’ that is the internet, and if it is public it means that anything can go into the bush telegraph. A lot of time may go into taking down a post, but a lot more time goes into removing it permanently from the web itself—if it ever can happen successfully. Try it. Perhaps like in India where a mammoth backlog of cases are pending in the judiciary, content by us and about us are waiting to be Removed from Google.

There needs to be something outside of what we do online that should be far removed from what goes on in there. Otherwise, we will end up speaking like the Kardashians all day, turn into Scots with drinking problems, and Robs with eating disorders. I am, of course, doing a gross injustice to the online world: it is not full of reality shows, there are other great things to look at and interpret. Remember that googling is not a phenomenon—it is what young people do and will do for a long time. Like a duck takes to water, newborns enter a technological world. Everybody has a different body part these days—the mobile phone. Facing it would mean to know the pitfalls of its use. Linguistically, there are many, and it depends on the kind of languaging you do, and what language you speak and use. On the other hand, it is also about the mechanics of language. A person who watches TV all day may speak the finest Urdu if she watches the right educational episodes, but it is bad for her eyes to watch a blinking screen for so many hours! She must walk down the streets of London and find out if some people speak Urdu in this city as well.

As you can tell, I am of the view that technology, especially mediated, is both medicine and poison. The media contain as much of information within its ambit, and discriminating between what is good and bad is something parents could teach their children. Certainly I would not—I would teach you to look at everything that is in the world with non-dual eyes. In such a way of looking, the queen and the pauper are from the same source of representation through construction (the Kardashian clan as well). They have bodies, and they have minds; they are one of us. Instead of playing holier-than-thou, the best way to navigate the web is by observing the explosion, and being sound in mind as not to get affected by what is said about you, or anyone else. No wonder celebrities love their fame! They have thick skins.

When it comes to the classroom, there is a lot of rubbish surrounding what it means to learn. Almost all my classmates till now have their computers on in the morning. Copiously keying in notes, I sometimes wonder whether they really believe that the spoken word is more important than the written word. I mean, it is the written word that gives one more knowledge than spontaneity or a well-rehearsed performance by a teacher. At the same time, if we are all glued to our screens, what about making our searches public to ourselves and others, in order to understand how we think? Are we brave enough? What are the words you searched for? What were the words you spelt incorrectly? What about the people you search for, the social media accounts you ‘stalk’ (is that not the nature of social media anyway?), and the people whom you secretly wish to know but whom you are scared of?

A lot of clues to the kind of mental work we do lies in the ways in which people search online. There are complex networks in the brain that can tell us about how the media are inflected in our mental strivings. Not all of us see images and texts in the same ways. And do we really think that the representation of the online self, that is, what manifests when one google-searches, for example, ‘Valerie Amos’, is really Valerie Amos? That is her representation. It is not whom she claims to be (unless she claims it on her own), and if she does claim to be what is there about her on google, so be it. She becomes a speck in an amplitude of data, and those who accord meaning to that data do so with the intention of thinking her as her cyber image. Constructed, again.

In the villages of India, where people are speedily being connected to computer technology and have mobile phones, the internet is a plethora of different kinds of aesthetics. Interesting questions appear out of nowhere such as a request of “Wil u make friendship with me?” which began in the early 21st century when kids my age started to discover that the Friendship Syndrome is what binds them together forevermore. It happens in urban centres too. In India, like everywhere else in the world, that is the first thing sorry figures do when they look at your eyes: they google you, and they want to befriend you, as here befriending is telling the world what a wonderful time you had being yourself. But their acknowledgement of the googling exercise, the methods through which their perceptions are formed, are also class-based. A non-English speaker from a poor family writes a friendship request in a different way than an educated English speaker writes.

Big Ben was able to teach me this in no uncertain terms. He cleverly knew the intricacies and superficialities of the cyber experience, and its benefits and rewards, and I have learnt much from him since those days in the 2000s. So, did you google Valerie Amos? What words did you search for hours ago? Were they all jumbled up or beautifully written down like a poem by Rumi you learnt by rote when you were at school? What was your digital history today? Mine was simple: I did not have any. I read a book instead. Offline.

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