Opinion: Assessing the year-end zeitgeist, and knowing what we don’t know

Every December for the past few years, Google has released a list of the 100 most searched-for terms of the year. As a representation of what’s been on the global culture’s mind throughout the year, the list has taken on such significance that Google has termed the list the “Zeitgeist 2013.”

So I perused the list – actually, the data was released as a series of pictures placed seemingly at random in a field of squares – with great interest. I had the question: How extensively am I tapped into the zeitgeist?

I began to get my answer when I saw a stock photo of a wrecking ball amongst the images of celebrities and disaster scenes that represented the most popular search terms of the year.

“A wrecking ball? How did that make the list?” I asked my colleague from across the room.

He laughed at my ignorance. Turned out, wrecking ball was really “Wrecking Ball,” a song by Miley Cyrus. (I checked it out. Killer chorus.) It made it all the way to No. 69 on the list. Out of the infinitude of things people could have been thinking about throughout the year, this was top of mind for a period of time, says Google.

I had to go deeper. What else did I miss out on in 2013? Oh, just about 25 percent of all the subjects the world was preoccupied with throughout the year. A dismal number considering I live in the 15th largest media market, in what I’m guessing is the most media-saturated country in the world. And especially considering I am part of the media, a daunting thought on it’s own.

The list includes objects and events, too, but the terms I failed to recognize were mostly people, so here are some of the other people who made the top-100 cut but still passed under my radar last year:

Jamie Dornan, an actor who is set to play Christian Grey in the movie adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” was No. 76. Bollywood actress Jiah Kahn was No. 89. Jodi Arias, who is set to stand trial in Phoenix for the slaying of her ex-boyfriend, came in at No. 25. I knew who Amanda Bynes was, but had no idea how she could she could be the 17th most searched-for term in the world in 2013. Thankfully, TheHollywoodGossip.com came to the rescue with the answer:

“Amanda Bynes has become a certified whack job. She tweets weird photos of herself, gets arrested and has seemingly lost all touch with reality.”

It wasn’t, however, just allegedly unhinged celebrities and up-and-coming movie stars that I overlooked last year. Atari Breakout, the old video game, made it to No. 34, because Google celebrated the game’s 37th anniversary last year by employing some coding magic to turn its image search page into a version of the game for anyone who typed in “Atari Breakout.”

So that perusal of that grand-daddy of year-end lists showed I am a little out of step with the zeitgeist, the spirit of our times. But am I really that far out of touch? Part of me says that I am. After all, that colleague who chortled at my befuddlement regarding “Wrecking Ball” – he’s 43. Twelve years his junior, I’m supposed to do a better job than him at keeping up.

But then I decided not to be so hard on myself. It was the holidays after all. Even though keeping up with the most-searched list would only have required staying current with an average of about two new subjects a week, I had to give myself a pass. I told myself: There’s just too much to keep up with.

But this is not a column about how things happen too fast these days or about how shallow the hive mind is – even though a seeming touchstone term like Edward Snowden was only No. 97 while Amanda Bynes sat 80 spots ahead.

Instead, what I’ve realized scanning this top 100 list is that more and more, we come to realize how much it is we don’t know. In terms of enlightenment, the consequences of this trend for our society is mind-boggling.

If you subscribe to the theory of the four stages of consciousness that business trainers and sales gurus like to espouse, we as a civilization are in a state of “conscious incompetence.” We can now glimpse at how much is out there, the endless barrage of information, but there’s just no way we can take it all in yet. If this trend is to be followed, the next step is conscious competence, when we each escape our current state of dizzied awe and start to somehow possess all our culture’s information, but still have to try at it.

Maybe that stage will take the form of a network of machine-brains, all connected and all directly fed the constant torrent of the world’s knowledge. Who knows? Some real sci-fi stuff for sure.

Once we don’t have to try to gather these bits of information anymore, when it’s just the way things are – then I guess that would be unconscious competence, the final stage.

It’s hard to guess what this will mean for civilization because it would probably be one that we don’t recognize. I’m just following the string here.

For now, though, we’ll have to resign ourselves to checking out that “Zeitgeist” list once in a while, and be fine with knowing how much we don’t know, watching with increasing befuddlement as Amanda Bynes climbs the rankings.


Contact Andrew Wig at andrew.wig@ecm-inc.com

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