INSIDE LARRY & SERGEY'S BRAIN
By Richard L. Brandt
Portfolio, 244 pages. $24.95
'Searching and organizing all the world's information is an unusually important task that should be carried out by a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good."
--Larry & Sergey's statement to Wall Street in their 2004 IPO filing.
The challenge for any chronicler of a Silicon Valley company is to distinguish between hype and reality. In Google's case, because of its indisputable financial success, the task becomes harder. After all, when Google has cornered $20 billion of advertising revenue a year--revenue that has come from struggling newspapers and other traditional producers of "content," which are in danger of losing their footing altogether--the vast flows of money can hide many simmering problems. It is remarkable that after ten years of escalating market dominance, Google's one truly successful innovation remains its search engine; it has developed more than 150 other applications, but they're either not as popular as competitors' products, or have failed to generate revenue.
The first question Richard L. Brandt addresses is Google's ambition to be the world's librarian. Google has always been very clear that it wants to digitize every bit of information. This raises obvious questions about the power Google possesses over this information. Why is it that the world's governments are not organizing and digitizing this information? Obviously, it's natural to worry about a single corporation becoming the potential gateway to everything that has ever been written or said. Since Brandt did not have personal access to the Google founders, one might have expected greater skepticism toward the self-proclaimed ethical motivations of Google's founders--embodied in their ubiquitous motto, "Don't be evil." This ethos must be seen in the context of the period of Google's emergence; the great computer giant of its era, Microsoft, was being assailed from all corners--the public, competitors, and governments alike--for being the epitome of evil.
Libraries, it is to be noted, do not charge for their content. So far, neither does Google. But we are at a very early stage yet in the life of the Internet, and it remains to be seen how this evolves. That the gatekeeper should be a single private entity, which moreover imposes its own model of advertising (which may or may not work for every content provider), should provoke concern. It is the business model inside Google's algorithms--Google's own brain--that we should be concerned about, rather than the degree to which Larry Page and Sergey Brin's brains might be virtuous and ethical.
Google is the single greatest force currently putting pressure on existing business models for publishing, broadcasting, communications, and entertainment. Google, with its Android phone software, has entered the telephone business. The way Google looks at it, all forms of communication can be redefined as search--search according to Google, that is. Google is wary of competing portals--such as Facebook, or the iPhone, or anywhere else users congregate and feel most comfortable--posing a challenge to its preeminence as the Internet's homepage of choice. It has tried to keep the homepage simple, free as it is of clutter and distractions, and has not shown any inclination to be a portal, such as AOL, paradigmatically, tried to do.
But as time goes by and we get more and more used to Google as the homepage, it becomes more and more difficult for any competitor to pose a challenge. Inertia is a large part of the explanation, but so is ease of use--in that sense Google harkens back to the revolutionary Mosaic and Netscape browsers, which made the Internet accessible to all. Undoubtedly, Google's search produces better results than any competitor's, which is partly due to the self-reinforcing nature of Google searches. The more consumers use Google search (yielding cookies that refine future searches by the same user), the better it gets at what it does. In all these ways, Google gives us what we need, with the least friction possible; yet in all these ways Google also poses a potential danger of a monopoly using the wealth of the world's knowledge and information for its commercial purposes.
Certainly, reading about Google's success story is a restorative counterpoint to the legends of evil committed in the recent past by Wall Street, Detroit, and other American corporations, which created little value yet rewarded executives extravagantly. Google has fundamentally altered the world, probably far exceeding the capacity of any single government to do so. Politics is now potentially more transparent and accountable than ever before. Users can find information cheaper and quicker and better than ever before. There is no aspect of our lives that hasn't shifted, sometimes crucially, in response to the revolution of information Google has been instrumental in bringing about. Yet Google aims to be all-encompassing, and that always has to bring its own hazards. As Brandt notes, Google claimed it wasn't interested in developing a browser, but it did, with Chrome. Google is posing a direct challenge to Apple's iPhone, with its Android telephone software, available through Verizon. When Google introduced Gmail, it was revealed that information compiled from emails would be used to target advertisements to users.
Brandt, like other chroniclers of Google, emphasizes Larry & Sergey's similar intellectual upbringing, their common Montessori background, and their shared experience at Stanford graduate school, all of which are generally said to be the source of the free-flowing environment at the company. Yet this is too banal to be given much explanatory credence when it comes to Google's eventual success. There is nothing particularly new in this, as far as Silicon Valley goes. The challenge for a chronicler of Google is to separate the corporate mythology--the way the Google founders talk about the 20% time engineers are allowed to devote to their own projects, or the way the company has bent over backwards to provide food and daycare, and even massages, on campus--from the corporate business philosophy.
To the extent that Larry & Sergey are math prodigies--or computer geeks, if you will--and lack the humanistic dimension, we are carried forth into the brave new world on the wave of their shortcomings. They both seem to display a cavalier disregard for the value of content, as Brandt suggests at numerous points. Why would authors write books for free? Only to enrich Google with advertising dollars? What would be the quality of free books? If the existing publishing, journalistic, and broadcasting environments entirely collapsed tomorrow, one suspects Larry & Sergey wouldn't be too unhappy. Content--some sort of content--can always be procured. Free, as Chris Anderson recently pointed out in his new book, can work for authors, musicians, and other content producers, but why should advertising be the sole support for creative work? Surely that would have an effect on the quality of journalism or writing, if that were the case. Yet Google's brain knows no other dimension than to capture advertising dollars through the greatest possible numbers of clicks.
Outside Google, the talk may all be about controlled chaos, yet hierarchies obtain--as they must--within Google. Engineers are a cut above nonengineers. The company makes no bones about it. Again, this reflects Larry & Sergey's bias that data drives everything, that there is no other calculus for decision-making. One might argue that this dilutes the quality of Google's search. It's better than anything else out there, but what is out there is pathetic, as measured by the utterly soulless efforts of Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL, which wanted to serve as portals where users were captured and walled-off from other options, rather than as neutral arbiters of information. So Google search is an advantage over these barbaric early manifestations of what search never should have been, yet the vaunted PageRank algorithm often fails to value quality over quantity. And moreover, Google doesn't seem particularly interested in measuring the quality of, say, a New York Review of Books article on a particular subject, or of a scientific journal's, compared to the random musings of some uninformed ignoramus, should that have succeeded in getting the most views. The elevation of the engineer's data-driven, linear, antihumanist mind might have something to do with this manifestation in search results.
PageRank, Larry's great innovation, we learn from Brandt's interviews with Google's competitors, might not have been such a great innovation after all. The technology was open and available to others to exploit; the fact that they didn't do so speaks to Google's competitors' disinterest in making the Internet experience pleasurable and efficient and quick for users. Yet the public mythology of Google's discovery of its magic algorithm needs to be brought down a few further notches. CEO Eric Schmidt--who was brought on with some reluctance at first, after insistence by Google's venture capitalists--is variously seen as not being particularly effective, or as the genius who produces the first part of the "controlled chaos" equation. Actually, it doesn't take a genius to be the CEO of a corporation in as dominant a position, relative to its competitors, as Google currently is.
There's no denying that Google's corporate vision includes making things as easy for the user as possible. After all, the dominant late-nineties Internet portal was AOL, and we all remember how user-friendly that was! And we all remember the horrendous banner advertisements flashed on MSN. Google has insisted on not including advertisements on its homepage. Advertisements, when they do appear to the side of search results, are unobtrusive. Yet, again, there is a sense in which advertising--because it is so effective in the form Google uses it--has become the engine of growth, rather than being the outcome of the growth of valuable information on the Internet. It makes no difference to Google what viewers view, as long as it results in advertising dollars. AdWords, borrowed form GoTo (later renamed Overture), which places advertising on search pages, and AdSense, which places ads on other Web sites, are the two key innovations. In response, competitors like Microsoft have eyed Yahoo to try to develop a counter to Google's dominance of the advertising market, but nothing has come of it so far. The logical conclusion to what Google is doing would seem to be the eventual end of all forms of middlemen, so that advertising becomes completely automated, without the human touch. Not everyone will lament the end of the advertising executive or salesman, but there will be other consequences for content should that happen--consequences we ought to think about.
We have let Google slide on many things--its China censorship, to allow it to remain viable in that huge market (though nothing Google does seems to stall the rise of Baidu, the local search engine); its occasionally cavalier public posture toward privacy; and its indifference toward copyright laws--because we feel good about Google. That is both the most tremendous asset (unmatched by, say, Microsoft) and also perhaps the weakest foundation on which to build the world's greatest library. On the other hand, Brandt is right to wish that Google might become an ISP. Our experience of accessing the Internet would probably become much better. We shall see if Larry & Sergey's collective brain can keep up with the spontaneous evolution of the Internet, as embodied in the worldwide community of users. That is the greatest logic of all, and it may supersede the planning and visionary capacities of any Internet corporation--even one as sanctified and mythologized as Google.