Friday, 9 August 2019
Essay: Google Assisted Prose
When I googled the title for this essay on 9 August 2019, Google replied:
No results found for "google assisted prose".
Well, that’s all going to change now.
In recent prose writing - I give an example below - I often end up indicating how I have used Google to enable parts of the prose and in a self-conscious way. If you like, I have got myself into a triangle with a search engine.
As an independent scholar and writer who doesn’t use a university library any more, I am very reliant on Google. But so are lots of other people, including those who do also use old-fashioned book-based libraries. At its simplest, Google allows you to get research results in one minute which would have taken a day in a library to obtain. When a desktop search takes up thirty minutes because you try out every version of the query you can formulate, complete with variant spellings and all the rest, then that could easily be equivalent to a month-long search involving inter-library loans and so on.
Of course, there are problems. Not everything has been uploaded and a serious researcher may well have to go off to a paper-based archive in the hope of finding information they need. But, on the other hand, persistent googling will turn up things which you would never have found through paper-based research - there are just too many bits of paper and too many archives out there. But a remarkably large number have been uploaded.
More importantly, the google search makes certain kinds of writing very easy - perhaps, too easy.
There are successful memoirists and novelists who clearly make extensive use of internet searches. Among books I have recently reviewed on this Blog, Annie Ernaux’s The Years (originally published 2008; review on this Blog 26 February 2019 ) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (originally 2007; review on this Blog 4 August 2018) struck me as examples of google assisted prose - Ernaux explicitly acknowledges it:
The web was the royal road to remembrance of things past [ a double allusion here, to Freud and to Proust ]. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present (pages 209 - 210)
The most obvious advantage of google assisted prose (GAP) is that it enables you to pile up examples and indulge any taste you may have for obscure facts. This is clear from Ernaux's prose:
Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm.They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. (page 108)
Here, Google is enabling the recall of things which have been largely forgotten, and enables it not least because Google now offers an extraordinary library of images which makes any personal album of hard copy photographs look decidedly meagre.
I want to work some more on this but for the moment I provide below a small example from my own recent work of what is clearly GAP writing, even though in this case I use the piece to underline the limitations of Google as a memory prosthesis
Google does not understand. It understands perfectly well when I type in “Ginette Gablot”, “Nicole Geblesco”, “Sanda Geblesco”, “Angeline Goreau” ,“Jawj Greenwald” - just to pick surnames beginning with G. These are people Google recognises. They have had careers and some have written books since our paths crossed in Paris when I was a student there. One is dead. For Ginette, it even has an image exactly as I remember her, and that because at the time she acted in a short film and Google has a still from the fifty year old publicity. That’s quite an achievement, isn’t it? When it appears on my screen, I am very grateful.
But when I type in “Happy Castro” Google does not understand at all. It cannot get past the idea that I want to look at photographs of Fidel, smiling. It seems unable to register any of the admittedly thin additional information that I provide: “Name of person”, “in Paris 1971 - 1972”, “American”, “Cuban-American”, “young woman”. Google has made up its mind; Happy Castro is Fidel, smiling.
I don’t think I knew Happy Castro - the sliver of memory is so slight - but I would have liked to have known her. I think our paths crossed maybe two or three times and when they crossed it was probably on the street and Happy Castro was probably on skates, no mean feat in Paris and not a common one at the time. I don’t associate her with a project; maybe she was a performer but maybe just an American in Paris, bumming around and being Happy. That was what interested me; she was happy. And as a result, fifty years later I have a file name in my head and a flicker of almost gone memory.
And I wanted Google to revive it for me.
Maybe someone somewhere has a snapshot of a young woman on skates in Paris in 1971 - 1972 but who doesn’t know the name of the person in the photograph. I’m not even going to Google it, “Do you have a photograph of ….?”
This is my life now. I vaguely remember things and sometimes not at all - the latter are now the unknown forgottens. Out of what I vaguely remember, it’s hard to make a story and it can only get harder unless Google starts to understand better my needs.