Pen ultimate / Of new starts and restarts
In the early 1980s, soon after I joined the staff of Haaretz, I was summoned to the room of the editor-in-chief - Gershom Schocken, a figure of mythological proportions even then. To those who did not have the privilege of knowing him, I'll just say that he always reminded me of what Sherlock Holmes used to say about his older and wiser brother Mycroft - that to meet him off his beaten tracks (Pall Mall, Whitehall, the Diogenes Club) was like seeing a tramcar driving toward you on a country lane.
I don't remember why was I summoned to the sanctum sanctorum, but I do remember that I was tense and nervous. He spoke at length, his discourse slow and measured, and soon I found myself hastening to finish his sentences for him. He let it happen three times, and then sort of snapped at me: "Will you please let me speak!"
This formative event came to mind when I read that Google offers Web surfers a new service: It is called Google Suggests (ostensibly, a younger and much smarter brother of Simon Says). As you type into the search box, Google Suggest "guesses" what you're typing and offers its suggestions in real time. As they help us to search the Web, they learn a lot about our preferences; their algorithms use a broad range of information to predict the queries users are most likely to want to see. You hint and they offer you the things and topics you want - or should want.
I'm a suggestible type of person, but I know already that Google truly likes to help me in my searches. When I type something in the search box, they usually ask me "do you mean?" - and offer something else. Sometimes it helps, but mostly I tend to say (they don't hear it anyway): "No, thank you. I meant exactly what I typed."
Google's name is not supposed to commemorate the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who wrote "Dead Souls." It is a take-off on the name proposed by the 9-year-old nephew of the American mathematician Edward Kassner, for a number which is 10 to the power of 100, in other words 1 with 101 zeroes following it. The unnamed nephew called it "googol" and the search engine hints that that is the number of pages they are ready and willing to search for you. If you look at the bottom of the page, you will see that the word "Google" gains an "o," which looks like a zero with each page it offers you for perusal.
This willingness to make suggestions to surfers concerning potential words, whims and fancies is radically different, almost diametrically opposed, to the relations between a person and his or her book. This is precisely the digital world's fatal fallacy, this interactivity: You type and the computer suggests unlimited possibilities, but it knows how to limit them for you. They know your limits. Better than you do.
The book, on the other hand (or in both hands, in my case) is magnificently inter-not-active. To be precise, it demands some activity of the reader, but it lays there passively by itself, beautifully unperturbed: It offers a string of words and expects the reader to create expectations, to offer guesses, to suggest options. It will not conform to the reader's needs, but rather with every word on the page, adds possibilities, challenges and provokes the reader. You will be moved by it, it will not be moved by you.
Let me be clear: I don't want my computer to second-guess me. I'm already its obedient servant, but to me Google's proposals are indecent. They offer them as a service, full of good will, but to me this seems to be a gross invasion of my privacy. It is already invaded by a host of Big Brothers (and I also have a sister) who know better than me what's good for me.
Will it - the computer, a compound noun for all things digital - let me guess what it means? Each time I have tried to do so, I have had to restart it. Maybe that is what frightens me: that it will start with finishing my words for me, and will end up trying to "restart" me.
When you crossbreed a deconstructivist with mafia boss you get an offer you can't understand. But here is my offer, which I know my computer will refuse: You will not suggest what I mean to you, and I will not restart you - unless you get stuck, which happens about a googol number of times.
Tonight, at midnight, 2004 will end. I will not dare suggest to you what you should wish for yourself for 2005. We are all old enough to know that it is too late to start anything new. We are all too far gone ("We are in in life stepp' d so far that should we wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er," to paraphrase Macbeth), but we can apply a term belonging to "computer-ese" to our personal life, and use the calendar as an opportunity to metaphorically restart ourselves. We should remember that by performing Alt-Ctrl-Del, we may lose all unsaved material in the process, so it is better to close down all applications, and then raise our glasses and wish ourselves an all Happy New Year. And happy restarting!