The Oracle at Google, or Bible Dipping for a Disenchanted Age

January 29, 2008 | 2 books mentioned 5 2 min read

As anyone with a Gmail account knows, to send or receive an e-mail through Google’s electronic mail service is to have the impression that someone else is reading your mail. Mention the military in an e-mail – even disparagingly – and you will see, in the sidebar, beside the composition window, an ad for Mention Premier League football and you’ll get links to a panoply of stores selling Newcastle and Arsenal jerseys. This feeling of being watched and plied with goods and services that someone or something thinks you are likely to desire is rather odd at first (perhaps even creepy in a post-Patriot Act era). But it abates. You become a jaded “old boy” and don’t even notice the sidebar ads attempting to draw you in by ‘reading’ your missives. (Except, perhaps, for the odd time when, in writing to a student about plagiarism, the Google sidebar offers you a variety of online warehouses apparently chock-full of the same sort of stolen merchandise you are attempting to rail against.)

At least until recently. A few weeks ago I began sending myself pieces of my dissertation as a means of backing them up. The sidebar’s offerings were unremarkable for several weeks (so unremarkable that I do not remember them and so cannot share them with you so that you too might remark on their unremarkableness).

But this past weekend, something changed. As before, I attached the chapter, a Word document named Chapter 2, and wrote “Charke” in the subject line. (“Charke” refers to Charlotte Charke, a notoriously outlandish eighteenth-century actress famous for cross-dressing on and off the stage, whose autobiography is the subject of my chapter.) I pressed send. And suddenly my sidebar was INNUNDATED WITH ALPACAS: “How to get free Alpacas,” “Alpacas for fun & profit,” “Are Alpacas profitable?,” “Enjoy an alpaca lifestyle!”

In that moment (a moment that has been repeated now several times – every time, in fact, that I send the Charke chapter to myself again), my whole concept of Gmail changed. I believe that Gmail is trying to tell me something about my future, and that future involves alpacas. What that future seems not to involve is recuperative literary analyses of neglected autobiographies by marginal eighteenth-century actresses.

In that moment, I realized that the Gmail sidebar might be much more than we all thought it was. It might, in fact, be just the thing to fill those gaping holes in our post-modern psyches. Like the oracle at Delphi, haruspication, and all of the other delightful methods of divination devised by the Greeks, bibliomancy in the Renaissance and 18th century (aka “Bible dipping” for those of you familiar with Running With Scissors), seances in the 19th, and the Magic 8 Ball in the eighties and nineties, (not to mention tea leaves, crystal balls, Jim’s hairball in Huckleberry Finn…), the Gmail sidebar might just be the medium – I mean the clairvoyant medium – of our age. And it’s so much tidier than haruspication.

I’ve got alpacas (free alpacas no less!), how bout you?

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. You know, I was ruminating on a somewhat similar topic just this morning. I was emailing with my mother about gallbladder surgery. My topic was the frustration of how overly litigious patients who don't understand that gallbladder removal isn't a cureall have resulted in overly cautious surgeons who don't want to remove gallbladders unless they absolutely have to (too many of them got sued when gallbladder removal didn't cure all ills, apparently). What did Google offer me? Legal aid in case I wanted to sue my gallbladder removal surgeon.


    I love the idea of seeing it as a sort of magic 8-ball equivalent, particularly as I always wanted a magic 8-ball and never got one.

  2. Ah, but the Oracle's ways are not as mysterious as you think. Google "charke" and "alpaca," and you'll get a few Spanish-language references to "charke de llama," which is dried llama meat — a rare delicacy popular in Chile. Google is trying to sell you alpaca jerky.

  3. I guess it would have been more exciting if the alpaca connection was totally random, but I do like how Google has helped us trace the path from outlandish eighteenth-century actress to Chilean alpaca jerky.

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