In the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Minority Report, Tom Cruise races through an urban landscape lit up with highly personalized advertisements. The film’s premise played on audience uncertainty regarding corporations, technology, surveillance, and privacy. Not only would advertisers know what you wanted before you wanted it, the police would be able to determine if you were going to commit a crime.
In Randall Stross’ Planet Google, we learn that the people behind the biggest name in Internet search (and email, and software-as-service) don’t find that future too creepy. In the introduction, Stross quotes the company’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, who, in 2007, foresaw a Google that could answer the question “‘What shall I do tomorrow?’”
Before I’m accused of joining the Google-is-evil bandwagon, I will make the full disclosure that I am a Google fan. I use Google products to organize everything from my email to RSS feeds, presentation slides to book browsing. While I am happily learning each new product to emerge from the Googleplex, how much is Google learning about me? The name of the company has become so ubiquitous that it takes on an agency of its own.
It’s too easy to forget that humans are not responsible for matching those little text ads at the side of the screen to the content in my emails—it’s all about the Algorithm. The Algorithm, Stross explains, is the highly secretive mathematical wizardry that made Google superior in search and able to match advertisements to search queries (and email) with such precision. Even if emails are being scanned rather than read, some people find even the appearance of the loss of privacy disconcerting.
Waiting for a culture to redefine its conception of privacy is just one hurdle that Google has faced since it was founded in 1998 by two Stanford University computer science students. Copyright and the definition of “fair use” continues to be a hot topic since Google acquired YouTube, the video-sharing site, and continues to digitize the world’s books.
With the introduction of “cloud computing” (the ability to create and store documents online so they are accessible from anywhere), one company is becoming the go-to site for more and more of our information needs—both the information we consume and the information we create. It is not enough for Google to absorb information like the Cookie Monster of data.
The company has profited by making information useful, and, perhaps more importantly, bankable. As Stross explains, the more information we feed the Algorithm, the more accurate the search results will be and the more likely it is that we will click on an advertisement.
The book’s narrative follows Google from its start-up days to its recent incarnation as a software provider. Google becomes the classic quest hero (apologies for anthropomorphizing the company yet again) on the path toward the seemingly impossible goal of organizing all of the world’s information.
Translation services, searchable satellite images of Earth, email, and web-based imitations of Microsoft Office products fit into that goal by centralizing more and more of our information needs. As Stross writes, “Thanks to [Google’s] work on algorithms in other parts of Google’s business, Google Earth software was able to pull apart a phrase like ‘cheap hotels NYC’ and distinguish which part referred to a place and which part described what was sought, and then place upon an aerial view of New York an overlay of inexpensive hotels.” Stross breaks down the technical information in such a way that those who don’t speak IT will understand.
Despite Google’s secretive nature, Stross had some limited access to the Googleplex (the headquarters in Mountain View, California) which Stross says does not appear like “an architectural monstrosity the size of the Pentagon” despite its name. He learned about the perks of being a Google employee (they are provided with three square meals a day, for example.) He also sat in on one of the“TGIF” meetings where “Googlers” assemble with the people at the top to ask questions and hash out solutions. Stross describes the meeting as “a combination of official briefing, informal question-and-answer session, and party.” I would have preferred more details about the working lives of Googlers but company policy no doubt limits a journalist’s access.
Thankfully, Stross explores the privacy issues without pandering to conspiracy theories. When Stross discusses the controversies regarding personalized advertising and copyright infringement, he deals mainly with how the company responds (or doesn’t) to its consumers’ crises of faith in Google and how this could alter the bottom line.
This is a business book first. In-depth explorations of Internet-era ethics (particularly from the side of privacy advocates) must be sought elsewhere as Stross’ story is focused on a company with an ambitious business plan. The successes and misfires when it comes to organizing information in multiple forms and languages provides interesting reading. Throughout the book, Stross explores the tension between the pursuit of scientific innovation that motivated the company’s founders, and the profits that have made Google the biggest success story of the Internet era.
I’m fascinated with the ambitions of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the computer scientists who founded the company, but we learn little in the book about their personalities beyond what the men show in a press conference. Of course, getting to know the people behind Google may not cure the urge to refer to “Google” itself as an agent. There is something mysterious about Google’s effervescent growth beyond the disarmingly clean design of its search display. The company’s search for products that “scale”, that is, can work at a high quality and at a very high quantity, is a constant concern throughout the book.
Google’s mantra may be “Don’t be evil” but that doesn’t mean the company isn’t pursuing world domination. It’s becoming a Planet Google, indeed.