Google: The Internet’s Cheshire Cat

Lewis Carroll anticipates the Internet and Google…or at least one might play a McLuhanesque game based on the premise. The Matrix certainly makes the explicit link between Through the Looking Glass and the virtual world, but why stop there? The Cheshire Cat with its wide grin and its cryptic game of hide and seek is the early premonition of Google…

"Would you tell me which way I ought to go from here?"

Let’s play this game a bit more with some of Carroll’s own words via Project Gutenberg:

The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had VERY long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Alice was looking for a way through Wonderland (the universe of information) but the Cheshire Cat (Google) can only give her answers dependent on her preferred destination (input). Alice didn’t much care where to go, she just wanted a direction (maybe the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button?). If you walk (search) long enough, you’re sure to get somewhere. The dialogue continues:

Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question. ‘What sort of people live about here?’

‘In THAT direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.’

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

Alice didn’t think that proved it at all; however, she went on ‘And how do you know that you’re mad?’

‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You grant that?’

‘I suppose so,’ said Alice.

‘Well, then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.’

‘I call it purring, not growling,’ said Alice.

‘Call it what you like,’ said the Cat. ‘

I like to look at that last bit of dialogue as a general semantics lesson, actually. Everywhere there is madness, which some might argue is the general state of most Internet forums, but the Cheshire Cat’s argument about the nature of madness stems from a word game that Alice recognizes as an illusion of meaning. Dogs, being the standard for sanity, growl when they’re angry and wag their tails when they’re pleased, while cats growl when they’re pleased and wag their tails when they’re angry. Alice correctly points out that the sound made by cats when they’re pleased is called purring, and of course we know there are completely different physiological origins for a dog’s growl and a cat’s purr. Only the Cat’s trick of language allows its argument to work, but it does after all show that Google is only as good as the labels we assign to the concepts we’re looking for. If we’re not in touch with the accuracy of those labels, our searches will lead us in the direction of madness, rather than sanity or clarity. More…

Do you play croquet with the Queen to-day?’

‘I should like it very much,’ said Alice, ‘but I haven’t been invited yet.’

‘You’ll see me there,’ said the Cat, and vanished.

Alice was not much surprised at this, she was getting so used to queer things happening. While she was looking at the place where it had been, it suddenly appeared again.

‘By-the-bye, what became of the baby?’ said the Cat. ‘I’d nearly forgotten to ask.’

‘It turned into a pig,’ Alice quietly said, just as if it had come back in a natural way.

‘I thought it would,’ said the Cat, and vanished again.

Alice waited a little, half expecting to see it again, but it did not appear, and after a minute or two she walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was said to live. ‘I’ve seen hatters before,’ she said to herself; ‘the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.’ As she said this, she looked up, and there was the Cat again, sitting on a branch of a tree.

‘Did you say pig, or fig?’ said the Cat.

‘I said pig,’ replied Alice; ‘and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’

‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!’

The vanishing Cat resembles the transition from your Google search results to the hyperlinked page you choose when you select a direction to follow. Google will reappear as you go along your way as long as you still have questions. When the Cat returns to clarify Alice’s remark by asking, “Did you say pig, or fig” we might think of the Google feature that asks whether you meant search term ‘x’ rather than ‘y’. More often than not, I find myself annoyed at that corrective inquiry because I rarely make mistakes in my search term input. Still, Google asks.

Finally, the most curious thing I ever saw in my life just might be that grin without a cat:

"Would you tell me which way I ought to go from here?"


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
This entry was posted in media, technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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