Huffpost Impact
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jane Wales Headshot

Can Google Change the World? Or, Has it Already?

Posted: Updated:

Sunday's New York Times article on Google.org caught my attention. The Times is one of the few daily papers that cover the philanthropic sector, and it does so with the same seriousness it applies to developments in business and government. It is attentive to new philanthropic models that are being tested and refined, and offers a snapshot of a work in progress.

One such experiment is Google's philanthropy arm, Google.org, or DotOrg for short. Structured as part of the for-profit company, it reflects a fundamental shift in corporate philanthropy. Whereas corporate foundations used grants and employee volunteer time as their only tools, increasingly corporate executives work to assure that social outcomes are intrinsic to their company's value chain. Many believe that the right business decisions can unleash market forces that, in turn, can drive positive and sustainable social change.

What sets DotOrg apart is that it is embedded in a search giant in the Information Age, a time when decision-making and authority are decentralized, and the individual, for better or for ill, reigns supreme.

It may be that many of the world's most daunting problems, as well as their solutions, will be the aggregate effect of millions of individual choices - whether they be to limit the water and energy we consume; to resist taking up arms; to engage in healthy practices; or to vote, and demand that that vote be counted.

Informing those choices can be the ultimate form of philanthropic leverage.

No one understands that better than the executives and employees of a company whose first maxim is "focus on the user and the rest will follow."

And, so Google has blurred the lines between the company and the philanthropy, naming its brilliant VP for New Product Development as DotOrg's leader, embedding DotOrg program staff in product teams, and fostering a smart and deep collaboration between Google's public-spirited engineers and external experts in large problems like poverty or climate change. Their combined talent has produced such products as PowerMeter, which allows the user to track home energy consumption, and in the aggregate, to contribute to mitigating climate change. Google Earth Engine allows the user to monitor deforestation in real time, informing efforts to promote the responsible use of this vital natural resource. Google Crisis Response and Resource Finder enable individual and group relief efforts after natural and man-made disasters. By informing individual choice and action, DotOrg hopes that these products can help to advance the social good more broadly.

Critics argue that these innovations are important mainly in the rich world where computers are ubiquitous. That may be true today. But the introduction and rapidly spreading use of "smart" phones, which provide internet access, is changing that equation. In the short term, Google has work-arounds like SpeaktoTweet, which shows that states cannot deny the oxygen of unfiltered information to a public yearning for a better life.

But, over the long term, the company's most significant contribution will likely be its decision to translate the world's knowledge into the languages of the developing world. Leveraging that innovation will be DotOrg's largest opportunity to harness information technology to social change. The combination of automated translation and connective technologies can change our world.

The Times article is critical of DotOrg's prior leadership for making similarly bold claims, thereby raising expectations to a level that could not be met in a period short enough to match our attention span. Fair enough. Perhaps it would have been wise to have been quieter during the philanthropy's "quiet phase," as DotOrg defined its goals and honed its method. New models take time to develop and prove their worth.

While that criticism may be fair, in the scheme of things, it seems unimportant.

Like the rest of us, Googlers could not and cannot foresee the full social, economic and political implications of providing the world's knowledge to those who were previously isolated by poverty or politics. (Although Google Chairman Eric Schmidt co-authored a deeply thoughtful Foreign Affairs article on the subject.)

But Googlers do know one thing, and that is the level at which large decisions will be made - and that is at the level of the individual.

Even for a giant like Google, with 31 billion searches each month, that knowledge alone is humbling -- and hopeful.