Google, bowing to social media, is letting down tomorrow’s Samuel Becketts

Before Google redesigned its search system, good but obscure blog posts often made happy landings. -- Bottle, message and photograph by Jay Little,

 [ part II:  part I is here ]

At a celebration in 2010 of the life of the late Norman Macrae, a notoriously wild visionary and deputy editor of The Economist, I learnt that he once tried to promote a nasal spray as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. I was reminded of his quixotic mission when a flurry of offers to turn introverts into extroverts for the age of networking came up in search results for the title of last week’s post in this spot — about shy people and social media. These services would have seemed pointless before a Google announcement on the 10th. No longer. It is clear that the all-powerful search engine cannot now serve as the greatest boon and crutch, ever, for the socially averse.

Let me illustrate what Google was able to do for introverted writers – before it made its big mistake – by looking at problems in the career of Samuel Beckett. As I mentioned last week, I have been reading his letters , so addictive that they outrank all my other choices for entertainment, even with a wireless broadband link to the net. Having his words and defiant wit for company has helped to blunt the edge of my dismay about the reshaping of the online experience.

Gatekeepers at the pinnacle of publishing would have punched the ‘dislike’ button on Samuel Beckett’s submissions of his early work incessantly — had some version of today’s read-and-react tools existed in the late 1920s and ‘30s. Most improbable about those rejection slip years is that he was supremely well-connected at the time, serving for a while as the research assistant of his good friend, James Joyce. Among his rejectors were Leonard and Virginia Wolf, publishing under their imprint, the Hogarth Press. On 18 August 1932,  Beckett complained,

This month of creeping and crawling and solicitation has yielded nothing but glib Cockney regrets. The book came back from the Hogarth Press, and the poems, with merely the formal rejection slip. Nothing from L. W. He was out of London… I have good reason to believe that the MS never left London and that in all probability he never saw it. But he must have got my letter. Or perhaps it is his turn for the asylum. Anyhow tant piss. I then brought it to Grayson and Cape. It came back yesterday from Cape. Their readers’ report did not encourage them to make me an offer for publication rights. … So far no reply from Grayson. I saw Rupert Grayson when I went round, the ‘author son of Sir Henry’. And a  proper pudding he appeared.

You can sense him fending off despair with exalted rage and nastiness to entertain his friend Thomas McGreevy. I have quoted a mere fraction of the rejections he endured in that particular month. Because his years out in the cold did not go on forever, his anger reads like high comedy. That would be impossible for the epistolary record of, say, Vincent van Gogh’s failure, which had no end in his lifetime.

‘[W]hat is striking about Beckett before the years of “fame,” is how wary he was of the public dimension of the arts, even as he was attempting to gain this dimension for himself and his work,’ notes the introduction to Volume I of the Cambridge University Press edition of his correspondence. In his dealings with publishers, ‘his wariness turns into a disdain or hostility which is all the more notable in that his principal interlocutors at publishing houses tend to be intelligent, patient, learned, supportive, and gentlemanly.’

Yes, yes, …  and as the editors of these letters point out, those gatekeepers were ‘almost unimaginable in the cut and thrust of today’s trade publishing world.’ But they were useless as advisors. On 18 October 1932, Beckett reported, as usual, in prose abounding in impish linguistic play:

The Grayson Bros. were stimulated by my multicuspid stinker to return my MS, ‘circumscribed appeal … Gratuitous “strength”’ What is that? I replied soliciting favour of readers’ reports. Reply to the effect that there was no written record of condemnation, that … my book had been read by 3 most distinguished readers and discussed verbally with the Fratellaci [a play in Italian on the name of the publisher, Grayson]; that their advice to me frankly and without the least desire to wound was to lay aside A Dream of Fair to Middling Women altogether, forget it ever happened, be a good boy in future and compose what I was well-fitted to compose – a best-seller.

Just think of all the wasted time and emotional energy in his struggle. The predictability with which tickets for Beckett’s plays sell out around the globe today – even when the actors are not especially well-known – has proved that the young Samuel did contain the seeds of a Nobel prize winner whose work would indeed find the huge audiences equivalent to those of a bestselling book. But for that, no thanks are owed to the gentlemanly early judges.

They were rejecting writing in which the voice – or voices, themes, perspective and preoccupations – were original; far ahead of their time. It did not conform to the prevailing standards of literary merit. The range of taste on which those standards were founded was constrained by the smallness of the circle of  tastemakers — publishers, editors and other assessors of manuscripts who were mostly men of strikingly similar social backgrounds and education. So when they concurred in judging his work as having ‘circumscribed appeal,’ they were a bit like spaniels chasing their own tails.

And there you have a metaphor for the way print publishing has worked – with rare exceptions – for hundreds of years, until the coming of … search engines!  Suddenly, we could all revel in being able to read opinions and reviews of, and reactions to, texts and works of art from continents away, and from readers as different as possible from people we know well – thanks to the unprecedentedly objective and dispassionate sifting of texts by the information-seeking software we call search technology.

This detachment from the sources of information has been a surpassing agent of democracy – for all art and all knowledge.  ‘The internet enables far wider participation in front-line science,’ observes the astrophysicist Martin Rees, until recently, president of Britain’s most illustrious scientists’ club, the Royal Society, in a new book  about the net’s effects. ‘It levels the playing field between researchers in major centres and those in relative isolation, hitherto handicapped by inefficient communication.’

We got used to postings on blogs like this one — virtually undiscoverable before Google’s refinements of search technology — becoming like messages in bottles finding their way to surprising numbers of welcoming and sympathetic shores. For many of us, unbiased search engines have been so vital to our ability to do our work and reach others with similar interests and obsessions that the internet might almost be Google, as far as we are concerned.

I never met a more ardent fan of the old Google than myself.

But that has gone the way of most passionate love affairs. Last week, the New York Times described how Google has begun to link search results to social networking on services like Facebook and Twitter:

For instance, for most users, a search for “chikoo” would show links about and photos of an Indian fruit. But for friends of Mr. Singhal, it would also show photos and posts about his dog, Chikoo. A search for a sports team would show, in addition to the usual links, conversations about the team among a user’s friends on Google Plus.

When people search for a name, Google will highlight people who are friends with the searcher on Google Plus, or prominent people. And in searches for general topics, like “cooking,” Google will show Google Plus profiles of celebrity chefs on the right side of search results.

One dire effect of Google’s reliance on social media for search results will be to replicate and magnify the old gatekeepers’ spaniel silliness – which works much like the ‘confirmation bias,’ or people’s tendency to prefer and emphasise facts that support their beliefs and prejudices, spurning alternatives that might be closer to the truth.

Before Google tweaked its search system to elevate the conventional and familiar – and socially conformist – above the new, challenging and foreign, a web site’s obscurity or relative isolation would not necessarily bar it from appearing near the top of search results. That was because Google’s search system was designed to favour intellectual substance, and dependable statements of fact – based on the quality of a site’s links to other repositories of knowledge, opinions, and records of fact or effort.  Of course search technology could hardly rank or anticipate literary merit, but anything a contemporary Sam Beckett posted on the web would have had a decent chance of appearing with, at least,  some noteworthy answers to the huge range of possible search enquiries. There was hope for their reaching a far wider variety of judges than members of the old spaniel club.

Now, we must conclude from what we are told about the change in Google’s search techniques that an obscure Beckett of the wilderness years would have to dedicate a large and ever-growing portion of each day to chasing celebrity-status, and to building purely social connections – with the numbers of these mattering more than their quality – to be noticed and read at all.

As noted on this blog last week, relentless self-promotion and hobnobbing are unreasonable requirements of people temperamentally disinclined to socialising – the ones we call introverts. If they do not act against their instincts, the coordinates for their work – no matter how useful or admirable it might be – are condemned to fall steadily from public view. Just as in the bad old days, to them that already hath a lot – fame, attention, praise – more shall be given.

I am not sure what is more distressing about Google’s move – its coerciveness (Get busy on social media, or else!) or the narrowing of everyone’s frame of reference that it implies.

How can it be anything other than a colossal misuse of the world wide web, the supreme tool for broadening intellectual horizons – to make everyone more parochial, narrow, tribal, and inclined to pander to the lowest common denominator?

That strikes me as something like using a jumbo jet to pop in at the grocer’s and buy a bag of apples exactly like the ones you already have growing on the tree in your own back yard , then boiling them to pulp — but with a celebrity endorsement.