Cambrian: Slice of Life

There are some things you can't ask Google

Kathe Tanner
Kathe Tanner

Think of it: Today’s high school students can’t imagine a world without Google, which was launched in 1998, believe it or not.

Those scholars believe they no longer need the gazillion-pound Encyclopaedia Britannica or stacks of reference books in the library.

All today’s youngsters have to do is tap a few keys on the phone in their pocket and presto! There’s an answer, give or take a million hits.

Are all the answers accurate? That’s doubtful, but I’ll bet encyclopedias had errors, too.

Google wasn’t the first search engine. That was “Archie,” invented in 1990 by a student at McGill University in Montreal, followed by the first handful of websites in 1993. And yes, I got all those Internet details through Google and the www.searchenginehistory.com website. It took me less than a minute.

Amazing.

Do I understand how search engines work, what a bot is or what a spider does? No, and I don’t have to — any more than I have to understand the intricacies of electricity every time I turn on a light or how a car works every time I turn the key.

Google can be a tremendous timesaver. It can also be a hellacious time-waster.

I remember e-tracking in 2000 the history of a firm that had surfaced in Cambria. I waded through at least 200 Google pages and a veritable waterfall of miscellaneous data, statistics and somewhat-salacious trivia. My search request captured millions of hits because the firm’s name had, umm, other connotations, some of them downright eyebrow-raising.

Eventually, I found enough information about the company to go to the owner and say, “I know this, that and the other thing about you and your business, and I can write the story with just that. But I want to include your thoughts.”

It worked. Thank you, Google.

But there’s another side of the search-engine world: the personal one. These days, sadly enough, I can learn more on the computer about my own history than I can from other people.

My mother died nearly three decades ago, my father and stepfather within months of each other when I was 32, and my grandmother three years later. My beloved Aunt Kate, only 30 months older than I and my nearly-a-sister, died unexpectedly this year. Suddenly (other than cousins with whom I shared a few experiences), there’s nobody left who can answer those inevitable, unimportant but pesky questions about “us” and “we.”

Sure, for familial statistics, I can turn to Google, Ancestry.com and amazing archives such as the one maintained by the Mormon Church. I could retrace my matriarchal lineage back to the early 1500s in the U.S., as my mom did the hard way decades ago. The Internet would confirm that my father’s parents and their predecessors were born in Sicily.

But the really important stuff vanishes when loved ones die and take their institutional knowledge of “us” with them. And that’s perhaps the hardest part of the death of close family members and dear friends: the loss of shared history and their ability to fill in my vacant memory-bank slots.

I can no longer turn to my mom and ask her about the route of that cross-country trip we took when I was 8, or the first time I had a funnel cake, or the name of our chicken in Everett, Wash.

I can’t ask my father the name of our cousin in Palermo, or about his favorite performance as a professional musician.

I can’t email my Aunt Kate about the name of the fried-chicken restaurant where we always ate on our way to summer theater productions, the Leonard Bernstein concert we saw together or where she, Mom and I were when the Nash Rambler died.

I’ve lost that magic that happened when I could say two words and have Mom or Kate know immediately what I meant, transporting us back to that exact moment we had spent together. For instance, for years, all I had to do was mumble “Mount Tamalpais” to Kate, and both of us would go into gales of laughter, recreating a 15-minute, side-aching giggle fest from long ago.

I’d explain it, but you had to have been there.

Aye, there’s the rub. All that’s gone now. And not even Google can bring it back.

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