Santa and the search engine

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Spoiler alert: This article contains suggestions that Santa is not as real as many would like, but that he may be more real than he’s ever been.

One of the occupational hazards of being an omnipresent corporation with a “Don’t Be Evil” motto and the goal of organizing the world’s information is that sometimes the knowledge that you are trafficking in is going to get somebody into trouble. In such cases, should you side with the censors when it comes to sensitive search terms and queries, or expose reality in all its chaotic glory?

Yes, I’m talking about Google, but not the search giant’s tricky relationship with China. I’m talking about its clash with another commercial behemoth, one whose factories put even Shenzhen to shame this time of year. I’m talking Santa Claus.

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If you ask parents what they consider to be the biggest threat to the magic of Christmas today, it’s not the Grinch. It’s the Google. Suddenly that three-word search query you’ve been handling for years with the guile of a seasoned KGB agent gets subjected to a labyrinthine algorithm and a Wal-Mart-sized data server.

Suddenly “Is Santa real?” has an answer. But is it the right one?

I Saw Tommy Googling Santa Claus

Enter the dreaded search query into Google — as hundreds of thousands do every month, even when it’s not the Christmas season — and the roughly 750 million results you get in a quarter of a second leave very little to the imagination. Most of the top results direct curious readers to sites advising parents on how to face up to the question and tell their kids “the truth.” The same holds true of other search engines, and the Santa entry on Wikipedia. If you query Siri on your iPhone, she answers with the characteristically cryptic, “He’s as real as I am.”

But with inquisitive children becoming increasingly tech savvy, and a wealth of electronic devices lying about that are eager to instantaneously dispel all manner of myth, it feels like a digital minefield to many parents. As one distraught mother told USA Today, “The beauty of Santa is the not knowing. Technology is all about knowing, and knowing this instant. I swear, Google is the nemesis of the North Pole.”

Parents are used to handling Santa skeptics. The 7-year-old Carl Bernstein in your daughter’s class who’s hell-bent on exposing the awful truth can be thoroughly discredited by the authority of the Office of the Parent, at least for a while. And although many of us had that Watergate moment in our childhood — when our parents’ great cover-up was unmasked and the betrayal laid bare — more often than not, it came with a sense of intrigue, sometimes after weeks of cross-examination and detective work. Now the truth’s right there, in black and white, as instantly accessible as “Angry Birds.”

Of course, even an information juggernaut like Google is not responsible for the Internet, but when it comes to fostering a belief in St. Nick, the company is far from agnostic. In recent years, the company has provided the mother of all Santa trackers, allowing children to track Santa’s global progress in 3-D with a Google Earth plug-in and, as the company blog puts it, “see him deliver presents everywhere from the mountain villages of the Swiss Alps to the white sand beaches of Hawaii.” It’s a nice gesture, not to mention pretty damn cool. But for some parents, it’s like being handed a free GPS system by a guy who just got finished slashing your tires.

Google is unsurprisingly reluctant to comment on the record about Santa’s existence or the company’s complicated relationship with him, other than to say that, as one company spokesperson states, “Santa’s Google engineers are eager to spread holiday cheer around the globe.” But as one former engineering manager and “lead elf” at Google (yes, that’s what they call themselves), Bruno Bowden, tells OZY, like many things at Google, the Santa tracker started as a “bit of fun” and then took on a life of its own. And, although Google promotes the tracker on its home page, it has not attempted to modify its fairly sacrosanct search results to thwart inquiring minds. With such a modification, it becomes “technically and morally and legally … a lot more complicated to figure out what’s the right answer. So we just provided something fun,” says Bowden, now an equity partner at Data Collective Venture Capital.

And so Santa continues to live on the edge of exposure, his true identity the subject of the grandest witness protection program devised by man. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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