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Google Instant is trying to kill me

Charlie Brooker, The Guardian, 13/09/2010 (

Last week I realised the internet wants to kill me. I was trying to write a script in a small room with nothing but a laptop for company. Perfect conditions for quiet contemplation – but thanks to the accompanying net connection, I may as well have been sharing the space with a 200-piece marching band.

I entered the room at 10.30am. Because I was interested in the phone-hacking story, I’d set up an automatic Twitter search for the term « Coulson » (eavesdropping, essentially: he’d hate it). Whenever someone mentioned his name, a window would pop up in the corner of my screen to alert me. Often their messages included a link to a webpage, which I’d end up skim-reading. This was on top of the other usual web distractions: emails, messageboards, self-deluding « research » on Wikipedia, and so on.

By 1pm I’d written precisely three lines of script. Yet my fingers had scarcely left the keyboard. My brain felt like a loose, whirring wheel that span with an audible buzz yet never quite touched the ground.

At around 2pm, Google announced the final straw.

I’m starting to feel like an unwitting test subject in a global experiment conducted by Google, in which it attempts to discover how much raw information it can inject directly into my hippocampus before I crumple to the floor and start fitting uncontrollably.

That afternoon, it unveiled a new feature called Google Instant. It delivers search results before you’ve finished typing them. So now, if I visit Google and start typing my own name, it shows me links to Craigslist the moment I hit « C ». When I add the « H », up pops the homepage for Chase online banking. By the time I’ve spelt out « Charlie », I’m presented with a synopsis and review score for « Charlie St Cloud », a film starring Zac Efron. Add a « Br » and Charlie Brown gazes back at me.

As the name suggests, this all happens instantly. It’s the internet on fast-forward, and it’s aggressive – like trying to order from a waiter who keeps finishing your sentences while ramming spoonfuls of what he thinks you want directly into your mouth, so you can’t even enjoy your blancmange without chewing a gobful of black pudding first.

Naturally, Google is trumpeting it as the best thing since sliced time. In a promotional video, a likable codger gives it a spin and exclaims, « I didn’t even have to press enter! » This from a man old enough to remember drying his clothes with a mangle. Google may have released him from the physical misery of pressing enter, but it’s destroyed his sense of perspective in the process.

But this isn’t just about ease of use: it’s about productivity too. Google proudly claims it reduces the average search time by two to five seconds. « That may not seem like a lot at first, » it says, « but it adds up. »

Cool. Maybe now I’ll get round to completing that symphony.

What with phone calls, texts, emails and Coulson tweets, that two-to-five-second period spent typing search terms into a soothing white screen was one of the only relaxing lulls in my day. I didn’t realise it at the time but, compared to Google Instant, it feels like a slow walk through a calm meadow.

My attention span was never great, but modern technology has halved it, and halved it again, and again and again, down to an atomic level, and now there’s nothing discernible left. Back in that room, bombarded by alerts and emails, repeatedly tapping search terms into Google Instant for no good reason, playing mindless pinball with words and images, tumbling down countless little attention-vortexes, plunging into one split-second coma after another, I began to feel I was neither in control nor 100% physically present. I wasn’t using the computer. The computer was using me – to keep its keys warm. (Apart from « enter », obviously. I didn’t even have to press that.)

By 5.30pm I’d written half a paragraph. I went home in disgust.

In desperation that evening, I used Google Instant to hunt for solutions, and stumbled across something called the Pomodoro Technique. Put simply, it’s a method for retraining your attention span. You set a kitchen timer, and try to work without interruption for 25 minutes. Then you take a five-minute break. Then you work for another 25 minutes. And so on. It sounded easy, so I disconnected my net connection and gave it a try. By the time I went to bed I’d gone through three « Pomodoro cycles » and written 1,856 words of script.

I’d heard of repentant slobs using a similar regime to ease themselves into the habit of exercise: run for 90 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, then repeat the cycle until your fitness increases and you can run to Gwent and back in time for Emmerdale. I never thought I’d have to do something similar for my attention span simply to maintain my own sanity.

Just as muscles ache the morning after your first exercise in months, so I can feel my brain ache between each 25-minute bout of concentration. But there’s something else there too: a flickering sense of control.

So, from now on, I’m rationing my internet usage and training my mind muscles for the future. Because I can see where it’s heading: a service called Google Assault that doesn’t even bother to guess what you want, and simply hurls random words and sounds and images at you until you dribble all the fluid out of your body. And I know it’ll kill me, unless I train my brain to withstand and ignore it. For me, the war against the machines has started in earnest.