Have you ever noticed ….
There’s a game I enjoy playing from time to time with various phrases. It’s called Google Autocomplete. You type a phrase into Google’s search bar and Google completes it with, maybe?, common searches that begin with that phrase. I’m not really sure of the mysterious ways of Google but it’s still fun to see what “it” comes up with.
(OK, I quickly Googled it, of course, and it seems, per a “public liaison for Google search,” that the autocompletions are determined by “common and trending” searches, plus your location (what country the searcher is in) and your previous searches, including whether you’ve removed any previously offered search predictions or results. It also excludes predictions that are sexually explicit and not related to medical, scientific, or sex education topics; “hateful predictions” related to groups or demographics; and violent predictions. Predictions that might be spam or related to piracy are also removed. “A guiding principle here is that autocomplete should not shock users with unexpected or unwanted predictions.”)
Here’s how Google autocompletes:
Have you ever noticed: how rain tastes like wine; the black diamond on a tape measure; that objects have a tendency; that tess looks exactly like [this apparently has to do with the movie Oceans 12]; the labels that are on the pumps at the gas station; when you hate someone.
This list disappointed me. It seems anaemic, though at first glance varied. The rain/wine one and “objects having a tendency” — those appeared interesting and a bit mysterious, until I realised that the rain/wine phrase is from Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, so not an original formulation but I guess good that people are reading the book, if they are? Or maybe they’re just trying to find the answers for the Quizlet card. And the ‘objects having a tendency” (to resist changes in motion and just continue doing what they’re doing) is Newton’s First Law and apparently searched a lot, presumably to answer a Brainly Quiz that phrases the question that way. “Have you ever noticed when you hate someone…” seems to derive from a comedy schtick of Cristela Alonzo’s.
I had noticed the black diamonds on tape measures but didn’t know that they “appear every 19 3/16 inches” or were for spacing I-beam ‘timbers,’ so facts learned. Useless to me but still.
Then I tried to drill down to more nature-related queries to see what natural phenomenon piqued searchers’ curiosity.
How does soil: form; help plants; pollution affect the environment; salinization occur; sequester CO2 from the atmosphere; affect plant growth; filter water; filter groundwater; erosion occur; affect the pH of water.
Does it seem like most of these are seeking answers to test questions? Or some AI trying to learn agronomy facts?
What do birds: eat; eat in the winter; symbolize; symbolize in the Bible; do in the winter; do; like to eat; eat in minecraft; see; have instead of noses.
Now I feel we’re getting somewhere; these read more like what an elementary school child might have asked, especially the nose one (more on that from Audubon here). I like that what birds eat, what they eat in the winter, and what they like to eat are all typical queries. Also, what do birds do?? We want to know.
I had to try What do monkeys for my nephew who likes monkeys. He’s 29. I’m 60 and I like elephants, sea turtles, and slugs, OK? Age ain’t nothing but a number. Anyway, that turned out to be a funny little search. What do monkeys: eat; eat in the rainforest; symbolize; look like [oh, you poor baby]; do for fun; drink; [do for fun: drink!] smell like; think of humans [good one!]; say (more on that at NPR here).
How do animals: get glucose; get rid of the carbon dioxide; get oxygen; communicate; get carbon; get rabies; and people cause weathering; use sound to communicate; help humans. Get get get. That weathering one was a curveball, though.
But Where are animals was a much darker search. Where are animals: found; stored on a plane; abused the most; going extinct; tested on; kept in zoos; from; cremated; kept before slaughter; microchipped. If I were an alien animal and saw that list, I’d turn that spaceship right around.
why does the sun: make me sneeze; shine; keep on shining; rise and set; make you tired; look yellow; appear smaller in summer; look so big. I love that a lot of someones want to know why the sun makes you tired.
How do shells: form; get made; get bigger; reproduce; get their color; get their pattern; get holes in them; help turtles; sound like the ocean. I’d take that class.
A few odd or offbeat autocompletions for various searches:
How do worms differ from viruses. How does a whale explode. What do sea turtles do to survive. How do spider legs work. Why do gardens in Florida have cages. Why do microorganisms have a bad reputation. What does an ant brain look like. Why do goldfinches eat so much; stopped [sic] coming to the feeder; leave. [sad face] Why do slugs have four noses; have a hole in their side; exist. Why are swamps so dirty; scary; creepy. How does the ocean get salty. How do ponds move in chess. Um.
Looking up Can a cardinal was fun. Can a cardinal be a pet; perform baptism; be married; and a blue jay mate; be an archbishop; be yellow; be a woman; regrow tail feathers.
Don’t Google Is the forest. Just don’t unless you want confirmation of widespread nature-deficit disorder. (Granted, 100% of searchers were using technology at the time.) It was autocompleted almost entirely with crossplatform, xbox, multiplayer, oculus quest 2, switch, game pass, split screen, etc. The only non-tech autocompletes were “Is the forest … scary?” and ‘Is the forest … good?” and I bet both of those are actually asking a question about The Forest, a survival-horror video game from Endnight Games.
I’ll keep doing and reporting this critical research but so far what I’ve found seems a mixed bag for those of us (me) who hope people are curious about nature and wondering why and how animals, plants, soil, ecosystems, climate, mycelium, and the rest of the natural world relate.
On one hand, common and trending searches, which by and large generate the autocompletions, seem often primarily prompted by corporate and media products (including games, videos, movies, TV series, celebrities), memes, and schoolwork cheating or shortcuts, and not by original or native curiosity about natural or local phenomena. But on the other hand, maybe those kinds of questions are asked predominantly of parents, friends, teachers, and not of Google. Maybe they are asked of Google quite a lot but each query is different, eccentric, weird enough not to add up to anything common or trending, so we’re not served those nuggets.
On other hands (how does an octopus), some of the search autocompletions are gold! it’s heartening to believe that so many people are searching Google all the time wondering why slugs have four noses or how the ocean gets salty, so much so that those become the common searches (even if some shadow state of biophilic educators is requiring these questions be answered). I searched What makes the, which is not a nature query, and was surprised that half of the autocompletes were nonetheless about nature: What makes the sky blue, moon shine; northern lights; ocean salty (it’s on all our minds); and earth spin.
(The best thing is that slugs do have four noses — well, tentacles — and two are for seeing and smelling, operated independently, and the other two for touching and tasting!)