Connecting [Barney] Google, Part 3–Barney Becomes a Verb
Barney Google has a sense of irony. Else why would he lead us down Hogan’s Alley to show us that the founder of the Pulitzer Prize, Joseph Pulitzer, also helped found that other great American institution, yellow journalism?
Barney Google is unstuck in time. Else how could he co-exist with both the ancient Mayans and Appalachian banjo music?
Barney Google is a far traveler. He’ll whip you out past Alpha Proxima to the end of the universe and on to someplace 10 billion billion universes over, and then use all of his wandering to prove that the math underlying capitalism is a fairy tale.
Barney knows a fairy tale when he sees one, existing as he does at several different levels of abstraction.
(I mean, who else gets numbers named after them? There aren’t any numbers called Dagwood, I’ll tell you that. Okay, his specialty was sandwiches. That’s so Wimpy of him.)
But what else you got to show, Barney? I mean, you were good in your time, but what’ve you done lately?
Barney Google proves you should never underestimate a comic character.
Barney tells us—but he just might be boasting—that the term google-eyed comes from him. Before 1925, the term was goggle-eyed. Barney likes to remind us that it was 1923 when the Barney Google song was released, which highlighted his google-eyed’dness to the world, and he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.
And googly eyes are important too. Anything’s friendlier when you put googly eyes on them. In Toronto, Emma Flannery, Lawrence Healey and Richard Rosenbaum are putting googly eyes on everything, and claim that googly eyes make everything funnier. (However, I tried it with Stephen Harper and he still isn’t funny. Just proof, I guess, that Barney Google isn’t Superman or the prophet Nietzsche or anything.)
Barney Google says “hotsy-totsy”, “sweet mama”, “heebie jeebies” and “horsefeathers” just to remind us that he taught us these phrases.
And then, of course, he likes to tell us, just as a topper, that his technological involvement didn’t end with the Edison phonograph. (Or newsprint, or live or animated film, or television commercials.)
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin were looking for a name for their new internet search engine in 1998, they latched onto the name of a huge and impressive number they had heard of. Googol. And then they spelled it wrong. Google. Thus inadvertently bringing the whole thing back to Barney once more, despite the fact that Page and Brin had never even heard of him, or Billy DeBeck or Spark Plug or anything.
Barney Google doesn’t do much, but he does get photographed with a lot of famous people. And not just anybody moves from being a proper name to a verb in their own lifetimes. Even if it just happened because of a mathematician’s nephew named Milton and somebody else’s spelling mistake.
But fun is fun and coincidence is coincidence. Why are we following Barney around, anyway? Is he so important?
Of course not. Aside from telling a story (which is a reason in itself, I guess) and aside from the sheer self-indulgent fun of this exercise in gonzo digression, what I’m trying to do is to explain that Barney Google—like almost any human artifact—exists within a tradition, within history, which, as well as being a story in itself, has the power to illuminate the artifact itself.
The comic strip, for instance, exists as evidence of our human ability to interact with abstraction, and as evidence of the nature of humour—including the relationship between humour and human aggression. The strip can thus be examined both as abstraction and as evidence of human nature.
What most people think of as obvious, requiring no explanation, can in fact can be seen as a complex example of a complex phenomenon, something that no one really has a complete understanding of.
Everything exists in context, and sometimes in several contexts at once. If you question anything closely enough, what you see inevitably opens up into something else. Einstein said something like “the greater the circle of light of human knowledge, the greater the circle of darkness surrounding that light.” What he meant, I think, is that every bit of knowledge poses new questions.
Human culture connects us all in a web which makes the internet look as basic and understated as a comic strip.
An obscure comic strip which most people have never of, can in fact be seen as a connecting narrative between the Edison phonograph and the internet, mathematics and Rice-a-Roni, and—tangentially—ancient Mayan inscriptions and the founders of yellow journalism.
Even Charles Schultz is connected. When he was a boy like Charlie Brown, he was known as Sparky, after Spark Plug, Barney Google’s horse.
Nothing human is simple.
Knowing that about Barney Google is not important.
Knowing that about the world around us is very important.