Atlantic Cities
Maps

What Google Autocomplete Thinks of the 'Poor,' 'Violent' Americas

Perhaps the funniest thing about this map of Google autocomplete results for the Americas is what it says about Canada. Type "Why is Canada" into the search engine, and the first thing that pops up is the insulting "a country?".

But there's plenty more to be discovered from this search-based look at international stereotyping, put together by Cameron Combs, a D.C.-based policy researcher who's spent time in Latin America. Most notable is what it says about how language influences Google's sentence-finishing technology. Combs has colored English autocomplete results for "Why is (a country)" blue, and results for the same question in Spanish red, and the differences can be jarring:

For instance, according to Google's algorithms, the English-speaking world wants to know "Why is Cuba bad?" while the Spanish one would like to learn "Why is Cuba Communist?". Then there's "Why is the United States in debt?" in English, and in Spanish, "Why is the United States rich?". Honduras gets slapped with the label "developing country" in Spanish, but in English it comes off even worse, as "so violent." Both languages produce multiple suggestions that countries are "poor" or "so poor," including Haiti, Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

About this odd venture into collective thinking – a larger-scale version of what's already been done with American cities – Combs writes:

The most popular searches related to Latin America, in both languages, are related to the region’s poverty. English and Spanish speakers agree that Nicaragua is "poor," that Haiti is "so poor," and that Guatemala and Venezuela aren’t doing so well either. Yet while Spanish speakers wonder about the roots of poverty in Colombia and Paraguay, English speakers are more concerned with why those countries are even "important" in the first place. Mexico and Peru may be poor in our eyes, while Latin Americans may be more likely to view them as "biologically diverse."

The Spanish results certainly reflect a higher level of sophistication in some cases. While true that Chile is indeed quite "long," Spanish speakers are more curious why it is "tri-continental." (Answer: Chile has holdings in Antarctica and Oceania). For the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Bolivia, the most popular Spanish queries deal with their forms of government: a "social state," "republic" and "plurinational" state. Why is Panama "famous?" Not the canal, surprisingly, or at least not for Spanish speakers. The country’s lax financial regulations topped their list.

Before anybody points it out, Combs is already onto the "obvious shortcomings" of his map that prevent reading too much into its psychological implications. Namely, not everybody Googling in Spanish hails from Central and South America. There's also the fact that a couple hundred million Brazilians speak Portuguese, meaning their questions about the world are unrepresented. As an experiment, I ran the Portuguese version of the query through Google Translate: Speakers of that language would like to know why Canada is "bilingual," why Argentina's beef is "better," and why the United States "entered World War II."

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion