Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ground Control to Manatee Tom

There's a manatee in the Hudson river.

I thought about this today as I looked at a school of fish milling around in the shallows of the Schuylkill river. What would possess a lone manatee to go this far north? Manatees are either kinda dumb or optimistic depending on who you ask. You can swim right up to them and pat them on the nose, although you shouldn't, because this gives them the impression that your whole species consists of people who can be trusted not to run you over with a motorboat.

Was the lone manatee an exceptional individual who bucked the general trend and took off on a voyage of exploration? Did she get lost? We can't know- and we barely bother asking- because we're so used to thinking science has the answer to everything regarding animals that we can't credit them with individual initiative. That's for us. Humans make decisions, but animals have instinct. We can't imagine that Manatee X decided to go North; we imagine he was driven north by some mistake or incentive that we just haven't discovered yet.

Puny humans.

A while ago an article in the New York Times turned me on to Google Trends, a search engine that has been called the "Database of Intentions". The idea is that people search google for things they plan to do in the future- movie show times, hotel rooms- and that the aggregate of this data announces the intentions of the population that searches the database. So if everybody starts searching for, say, "Pirates of the Caribbean 12" we will have ourselves a franchise. It's a marketer's dream, and proposes the possibility that a good reader of search engine data could detect trends in advance of the general population. In advance of you and me. In advance of our conscious minds. They could take a lot of fun out of our lives by knowing, when we decided to go North, that people in general had been thinking about moving north, and that it was probably due to a higher incidence of snow cones.

I don't see how marketing can't account for most of our everyday decisions, and how, when it doesn't, we shouldn't take credit for being fabulously individuated and brave. Like, say, a certain manatee.

Google being google, they have put the database of intentions online. The real fun starts when you compare searches. So you can also see, for instance, if people are searching more often for, say, art or science, (art), good or evil or manatees or sharks(sharks).

Searching reveals intuitive truths. Sharks are way out of manatees' league, but groundhogs, say, come up about even.

(Groundhogs are red.)

Google knows what you thought you knew. It might have what we used to call intuition: a sense of the aggregate. It's a little depressing to think that all this private information is being codified and expressed commercially, but there is always an opposing force.

The Alamo Draft House in Austin (which is a place already dear to my heart since it serves beer and cheeseburgers at the movie theater) has sponsored a "Blanks on a Blank" movie contest that turns "Snakes on a Plane" into a much better joke than it was already. If my friend Wes Kim's "Aardvarks on a Tank" wins the contest, he will get to go to premiere. And he really, really should be there. It will strike a blow for something. You will agree with me if you watch the movie: he plays the guy with the sandals. Aardvarks on a Tank can be found on this page full of lesser movies.

And if you need more evidence of manatee-like behavior in the human flock, check out's grocery aisle. Search for Tuscan Milk and read the reviews. Go from there to grapes and vine ripened tomatoes. It will make you love the puny humans and their milk drinking ways.


W said...

Thank you for the AoaT plug, dearest. Voting closes tonight, and the results will be announced tomorrow morning -- how will I ever sleep? (Answer: Like a rock -- too tired making silly aardvark films and karaoke videos...)

Oh, and now I've subscribed to your feed -- now I can be instantly notified of all your online noodlings!

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