For an hour, I hung out with my college self. I learned everything about him — his insecurities, the gaps in his knowledge, where he went when he was bored and his not-safe-for-work interests. How did I meet him? By viewing everything I've ever searched for online.
Now I'm astonished — and a little ashamed — to see who I was when I was 21. That kid was an idiot.
Google recently announced a feature that allows users to download their search history. It's fairly easy: You open your search history page, hit the gear icon on the top left corner and scroll down to Download, then select Create Archive.
You might get a blur of code that looks like this.
My searches weren't that incriminating — but they were so stupid, I'm horrified I was ever this naive. For example: "What is panini bread?"
Browsing my Google history made me question what was going on in my head when I was 21 — except the query combo "beers in a keg" and "how to make a toga."
I have no idea why I needed to know if a doctor who neuters dogs has a title other than veterinarian. Or how I got so broke I needed information on selling plasma. More baffling still: why a search for "female version of eunuc" [sic] came immediately after Googling "Hangin' With Mister Cooper."
College Max, it turns out, couldn't focus. He searched for "anterior vena cava." He searched for "butter." He searched for the cover art for a 1978 issue of Hustler, and then he researched "journalism jokes." And his late night mom-don't-look searches were ... well, they weren't gross, but they were phrased in a vernacular unfit for polite conversation.
On a deeper, more disturbing level, seeing our own searches shows how miserably dependent we are on technology.
As a college intern, I once had an editor tell me, "Because of the Internet, you have no excuse not to know something." And it's true, even if the opportunity to scan an infinite wealth of information is wasted on puerile garbage. But our reliance on Google has an effect on memory retention: If you never again have to remember something, you probably won't try.
We don't need to memorize much of what we search for. Take my query for "the girl from Watchmen": It's just trivia. But there's plenty of common-sense information we assume is just a Google search away — the number of quarts in a gallon, for instance — that we ought to know by heart. And yet we keep forgetting.
In 2011 — right around the time I Googled "How fast do they drive in NASCAR?" — researchers from Columbia University published a paper called "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips." It points out how, with ready access to information, we're worse at recalling information and better at remembering where to find it. Essentially, Google replaces memory; it doesn't enhance it.
This phenomenon is called transactive memory. The information is stored outside ourselves; we treat Google like a flash drive we can plug into our brains. Rather than trying to commit things to memory, we can tap a quick question into our smartphone's browser. Oh yeah, and this problem isn't going away: The only way to fix it is to shut down the Internet.
I don't remember the results of any of the above searches — journalism jokes, toga instructions and especially the academic searches that illuminated advanced literature. Nor do I remember the lifehacks I used to get me through college.
I took a search engine for granted — and I learned less as a result.
Should you meet your younger self? Should you take the plunge and dive into the eerie rabbit hole of years-old Google searches? Absolutely.
College Max didn't know how to get anywhere or spell anything. He was extremely interested in suits and absurdly bad at illegally streaming movies. Meeting my 21-year-old self was like peering into a funhouse mirror; it left me disturbed at what I saw but more conscious of who I really am.