Gaga for Google
May the source be with you, over and over
Last month, Newsweek national sports correspondent Mark Starr bolted from a seder table, obsessed with the need to remember the name of the male lead in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 disaster of a film, ''Zabriskie Point." He knew that the man had lived for awhile in the late '60s at Roxbury's Fort Hill commune and that he died in prison after participating in a bank robbery.
Starr found a computer and, like a Pavlovian dog, streaked to Google.com. He typed in ''unknown actor" plus the name of the wrong Italian director, Franco Zeffirelli, and came up with bupkis. He stayed the course, though, and as a Google artiste, eventually arrived at Antonioni and then his quarry, Mark Frechette.
''Why Mark Frechette's name came up during seder, I have no idea," says Starr. ''He didn't take anybody out of Egypt."
The Observer was bitten by the same bug. I have sat bolt upright in bed at 2 a.m. and, face illuminated in a dark room by a monitor screen, found the correct century in which El Cid lived -- the 11th -- and reviewed Hungarian history in Transylvania. The truth is, we obsessives streak to Google at all hours in search of facts that masquerade as knowledge. They are of no use to anyone, yet we must own them. There should be a 12-step program for this malady.
Once infected, a person is consumed by the Google virus like a flesh-eating worm. I've been hopeless for years. Over a 24-hour period last weekend, for example, I Googled, as follows:
When did they come up with the Nicene Creed and, while we're at it, where the hell was Nicaea?
It was Tolstoy, wasn't it, who wrote the ''Kreutzer Sonata"?
When is the Hamilton College graduation this year?
Was Michelangelo older than Leonardo?
What was actor Michael York's breakout movie?
When exactly were the Dark Ages?
Who was St. Barbara? (I love this one: The patron saint of artillerymen.)
I confess I also stopped once to ask myself out loud, ''What am I looking up?"
Starr's seder performance and my weekend tally underscore a couple of things. First, Google maps the unfathomable human thought process. How the ''Kreutzer Sonata" appeared on my radar screen remains a mystery. Second, it highlights a new millennial reality: Dinner decorum has been changed forever.
For better or worse, it is now common for a person to abandon the halibut and asparagus to resolve a food fight of a debate or answer a question that, left open, will cause night sweats. (''Why am I thinking there are 12 rather than 14 stations of the cross?" or ''Who else besides Jimi Hendrix recorded Dylan's ''All Along The Watchtower"?)
There are a number of theories floating around about the DNA of hard-core Googlers. John Townsend, a New York headhunter and Googler addict of some note, was informed recently by a woman friend that there is something distinctly male about the Google obsession.
(Townsend recalls reading a William Safire column in the subway with a quote in it that was driving him nuts. He Googled ferociously when he got home and learned it was from Browning. Apprised of this, his wife went to ''Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" and found the reference faster than he did on Google.)
Anyway, men must always be right, the woman's theory goes, because they are so competitive. So they Google ad nauseam to gird their loins for battle over a potential bar bet or cocktail party warfare. Women, in contrast, are more secure and have less need of abstruse answers to arcane questions.
An arresting thesis, but an empty one. There are plenty of women who must know the answer to something. A colleague with whom I raised this readily admits she is every bit as consumed by this obsession as I am, and lots of men couldn't care less. Until recently, former oil trader Bo Howard of Houston was as interested in Google as he was in Tom Menino's golf handicap.
But it doesn't take long for Google to bite. Howard, it turns out, adores the music of the late Antonio Carlos Jobim. He learned there was a real person who inspired Jobim's classic ''The Girl From Ipanema" and just had to know her name. So he Googled his way, haltingly at first, to one Heloisa Pinheiro, whom Jobim and his friend and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes used to watch as they drank beer at a beachside bar in Rio.
Now a committed Googler, Howard e-mails me, ''I have been unable to confirm the brand of beer they drank while watching her, but I'm working on it." Minutes later, he comes back with: ''The boys were not drinking beer but ''caipirinhas" made with cachaca -- the brazilian aguardiente (read firewater)." Welcome aboard, Bo. You've earned your stripes.
The Google psychosis is answer driven, not gender based. It has captured an army of men and women who can't let go. Of anything. The essence of Google is less about trumpeting one's array of factoids, assuming you can remember any of them, than scratching an itch. And then scratching another one. And another. That's the point. There will never be a time when we will not itch. Imagine.
Sam Allis's e-mail address is email@example.com