Do you know what happens when you live in Lebanon and you type the words “why am” into Google? efore you can type the next word, Google’s Autocomplete function helpfully offers to complete your thought. The first suggestion: “why am I always sleepy?” The second: “why am I not losing weight?” The mood perfectly captured by Google.
True, the results of an algorithm lack the nuance and intellectual heft of a philosophical diagnosis, and the results are regional, but Autocomplete provides a valuable window into the questions we’re asking. As Google explains, “The search queries that you see as part of Autocomplete are a reflection of the search activity of users and the content of web pages.” These predictions are powered by an algorithm “based on a number of objective factors, including how often past users have searched for a term.”
Google has become something of the secular equivalent of a confessional box. Within the confines of a search bar you can ask questions or express opinions you would never admit to in public. Our most popular searches are, to some degree, an uncensored chronicle of what, as a society, we’re thinking but not necessarily saying.
While we as individuals are not always willing to talk about how tired we are, there’s more evidence than ever that we’ve reached crisis levels. As one young woman told me during a Q&A session, “I don’t remember the last time I was sleepy.”
One other point on Google’s page explaining Autocomplete stood out to me: “Just like the web, the search terms shown may seem silly, strange, or surprising.”
A few minutes spent typing random words (or celebrity names) into your Google search bar confirm this. But in the case of our tired civilization, there’s nothing silly, strange or particularly surprising. Actually, the thought of so many people hunched over their laptops or iPhones, asking Google, “Why am I always sleepy?” or “Why am I not losing weight?” is really sad. And the answer is not going to be given to us by an algorithm. But we can start by shutting off our devices and getting some sleep and exercise.