The Search Engine Generation

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Search Engine Generation

 In the past 15 years, e-mail has become the normative means of instant commercial and personal communication, and social media such as My Space, Facebook, and Twitter have aligned themselves with YouTube as the prime means of generating and accessing personal identity. All of these mechanisms are embedded within the data gathering combines of various corporate agencies and governmental vacuum machines. The unprecedented scale of this information shift has not (as far I can tell) generated any term to describe the coming-of-age youth who have been born since Bill Clinton was first elected president. These young people both generate source code and have lived their entire lives enmeshed in the uroboros-like labyrinth of source code.

An earlier generation (those born in the 1970s) got tagged with the term “Gen X,” which became popular enough as a rubric that almost everyone knew soon after its appearance to whom it was referring. A similar naming process, however, does not seem to have occurred for a subsequent generation. About three years ago, I was standing in line somewhere and suddenly the phrase ‘The Search Engine Generation” echoed in my thoughts. It felt as if someone not visible to me or anyone else had suddenly whispered to me, in the same way that a colleague will comment on something at a public meeting. It made sense to me and I’ve subsequently talked about the term with various strangers I’ve met at airports and conventions over the past couple years. As far as I can tell, the phrase has not gained any traction, and I doubt that posting it here will affect its neutral standing. Nevertheless, as a way to contextualizing the writing of Matthew Dickman and some other younger poets in a future post, I want to post this term as the best way I’ve been able to characterize the impetus behind the enormous social shifts that are taking place in our cultural and economic lives. My choice of a technological mechanism in some ways should not be that surprising. “Print culture,” for instance, is the term used to bracket the impact that the printing press had on the development of the modern world. The imprint of next half-millennium will be derived from the emergence of the search engine as the fundamental synapse of post-modern life in its post-chrysalis life.

The first time I heard the term “search engine” used by anyone engaged in cultural critique was during a seminar at UCSD in the spring of 1999. Marcel Henaff, one of my three or four favorite professors in the Department Literature, was talking about how he was the first person in the department ever to send an e-mail and during the course of his talk he mentioned the term, “search engine.” “Search engine?” I thought to myself. “What’s a search engine?” Obviously, I was still working at the level of a print-culture typesetter, who regarded his Compugraphic 7500 as sophisticated because it made use of a floppy disc to store information. Fundamentally, I was still functioning as a person shaped by a Fordist economy. As I puzzled over Professor Henaff’s citation of “search engines” as a paradigmatic shift, my limited imagination remained unable to comprehend an engine as anything other than a mechanism in which the energy results in visibly moving parts. I still don’t have a sense that the results of typing of a term into my web browser involve an engine. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine my life the past 15 years as anything other than one in which search engines have enabled me to keep track of far more projects than I could previously have handled. On the other hand, I still feel emotionally embedded in print culture and only recently have I realized that I no longer find myself wistfully thinking of entrances to libraries as places where rows of wooden drawers with paper card catalogues await my perusal. The visual joke of the card catalogue erupting in Ghostbusters will only be a puzzling prank to a new generation of film watchers.

At this point, anyone who is twenty to 25 years ago has basically been as shaped in a social sense by search engines as much as my generation was shaped by radio, television, cinema, and vinyl records. If social identity the past four centuries has largely been a plastic phenomenon, in which one performs in public space some consistent model of inclinations and preferences, it now involves an intense degree of constant reinvention, all of which is both he subject and object of search engines. The pressure to provide new “content” for these search engines seems voracious, and some of that pressure seems to have surfaced in the development of newly prominent poets. In particular, I am interested in how the overflow of information seems to have reduced the need to be held accountable for what one says. Instead, as with social media, success in being visible is justification enough for one’s artistic production. The result is an image of the poet as an “air personality” or “court jester” to the powers that control search engines. No one poet is guilty of falling into this trap, and future posts are not meant to assign responsibility for this problem to a particular poet as such. I have to start somewhere, though, and at this point it appears that Matthew Dickman is a likely candidate for cross-examination.