The Danger of Google History in a Time of War

Or Dennis Prager called me a liar

Photo by Nick SchouRecently, I was called a liar on national radio.

This is never a pleasant experience, but it's even worse when the evidence used against you is the World Wide Web's most popular search engine, Google.

I was being interviewed by conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager when he claimed that Palestinians have never staged a large protest against terrorism. I responded that in fact I had witnessed several demonstrations, that a particularly large one in 1996 received widespread media coverage.

"Since I can't find it on Google, you're obviously lying," Mr. Prager informed me—and his listeners—as we returned from a commercial.

As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies at UC Irvine, I use Google dozens of times per day. But I was stunned by Prager's remark, more specifically by the idea that a minute-long Internet search would provide sufficient evidence to pass judgment on a historical claim, let alone a person's moral (and professional) character. But in today's postmodern, depthless and confrontational culture, speed and stridency have become more valuable than accuracy and deliberation. Those who search for historical and moral complexity are too often shouted down and dismissed as liars or as supporters of the enemy—Saddam Hussein or American imperialism or both.

As our interview continued, Prager's accusation, bolstered by his Google search, began to worry me. Could my memory have fabricated events in order to support a desired but inaccurate rendition of history? How could I know for sure without the benefit of another commercial break to out-Google him?

One thing was certain: listeners reached the conclusion Prager intended, as a caller expressed disgust at my "looseness with the truth."

Later, as my head cleared, I began to realize just how dangerous our on-air exchange was for the future of history—as a scholarly discipline and a public trust. To begin with, the Google standard of history assumes that if something hasn't made it onto the web, it never happened. This is clearly nonsense, as there are innumerable contemporary events that never become Googleable "facts" because the people involved have neither the access to official "recorders of history" (such as reporters, activists or scholars) nor the technology to put it on the web themselves. Or the information could be on the web, but in Arabic, French, Japanese or a hundred other languages Prager might not have the software to decipher. Indeed, at the beginning of the show, Prager claimed, based on another web search, that I have never written anything critical of Palestinian violence. But, as I then informed him, I had in fact written an article in Le Monde after the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000. Perhaps if he'd used google.fr, he would have found it.

Google history also ignores the fact that quite a few important events occurred before the birth of the web. Did the Revolutionary War not happen because it's not cached by Google or in the Times' online archive? Indeed, after the show—too late for the speed of talk radio—I remembered that I also published an op-ed piece for the Christian Science Monitor in the wake of the 1996 wave of Palestinian terrorism, too early for the Monitor's online archives, which is why Prager didn't find it through Google. And only days before our interview, I wrote an article for Tikkun magazine (which was on its website) criticizing continued violence by—and, as important, against—Palestinians. I still don't know why that didn't turn up on his Google search.

The problems of Google history are not restricted to the competing claims of Israeli and Palestinian violence. A group of high school teachers recently showed me the materials they've been given to help their students learn about Iraq. It reads like Google history—a few names and dates, with the nuances and complexities of the country's history and our role in it nowhere to be found. Worse still, most of the materials were created by several mainstream news organizations for their "educational" websites. This is one reason professors frown on students using the web for research.

On the other hand, a review of the way major anti-war organizations such as ANSWER render Iraq's history reads like they were written by typing "far-left conspiracy history Iraq" into the Google search box: it's all U.S. and British imperialism and oil, with Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime given bit parts at best. Real history is a lot messier and harder to find.

It took me several days of searching on and off the web, as well as a helpful e-mail from a journalist friend, but I found the "evidence" of the Palestinian demonstration that, according to Google, never happened. It took place on March 5, 1996, and was covered by the Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers. But for some reason, it never made it onto the web.

There's a reason history should be written by historians and not by Internet software or talk-show hosts: Who else today has the time and patience to sift through the past to unearth the events and ideas that are fundamental to reasoned public debate on the most crucial issues facing our society? The ancient Greeks long ago realized that history is crucial to democracy; especially in wartime, we Googleize it at our peril.

 
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