Planet Google – Book Review

On: September 17, 2009
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From the perspective of a professor of Business one can expect the focus on Google as a commercial company. With this book Randal Stross proves to have a deep insight in many facts, that mostly evolve around the ideology of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who founded Google when they were students at Stanford University in 1998.

With the foresight of a quickly expanding web, they worked on automation of web search, as opposed to other search engines such as Yahoo, that worked mainly with human expertise at that time. Brin and Page replaced this human expertise with algorithms. Their experiment with plain text advertisement, in stead of banners and pop-ups, as a more user friendly, and less commercially biased way of making money was the key to their early success. They placed small plain text ads on the right side of the search results and only in relation to a search, for which they got paid only when clicked on.

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The revenues this approach generated were the key to Google’s commercial success, and provided for means to work on their vision:

“To gather all the information in the world”.

Though Google nonchalantly estimates that it will take about 300 years to fulfill this mission, and Randall Stross argues that they clearly struggle with new ways to make money besides advertisement, Stross fails to discuss in depth many other influences involved in Googles succes. Stross does cover privacy issues, as he mentions, that ironically the Google slogan “Don’t be Evil” might soon turn against them, both from the public’s and the authorities’ perspective. And the facts he presents seem to cheer Google as a company with an audacious plan so different from other mogul computer companies, that it might just work on the other hand. Yet, besides discussing money and privacy issues he leaves some relevant issues open to discussion.

Privacy and surveillance issues due to automation are rising in many areas, such as banking, health care administration systems and Social Networks. Privacy problems, and other matters such as intellectual property infringement, are not just Google’s problems but possible more a reflection of the times, the available technology, and the speed with which the technology is being developed.

The question is rather whether Google will manage to convince us that they are not out to exploit us, and that its way of doing that seems legitimate. Stross remains safe by avoiding to discuss a worst or best case scenario if Google proceeds to be the big player it now is.

McLuhan‘s Technological Determinist approach to argue a doom scenario and Ted Nelson’s description of an ultimate media archive as a dream scenario are just two theoretical approaches that could spice up the discussion of what is to come of Google, and what their current steps might entail.

The Technological Determinist approach focuses on how media technology reshapes society. McLuhan argues that “each communication invention throughout history changed how people thought about themselves and the world around them”. He uses the notion that typographic technology caused a shift in Western thought, as starting a point for understanding shifts perceived at present (then: 1962) caused by what he describes as “electric” or “new” media.

With Google taking a head start with using the combination of algorithms and a massive information source for these algorithms to work with, we might want to be cautious by implicitly giving one company a lot of power. Because while providing us with information, there is always that filter of software (algorithms), for which Google keeps the formula a secret. Google already influences how we search. Because of its supremacy (68% usage) over other search engines we are more and more subjective to its exclusive use. This makes it inevitable that we are influenced and formed by it. And as for a doom scenario, to which extent do we want to be formed by a commercial company that keeps the formula to their success a secret. As Stross cleverly points out; “Why doesn’t Google just provide us with its data indexes to browse through?”.

On the other hand, we might just have to be thankful that Brin and Page decided to take up the responsibility to gather all the world’s information for us to access, and are giving us many tools to do so, such as Google earth, -maps, -street and so on, all centrally coordinated by Google, as the Ultimate Medium.

Google’s decision to buy Youtube, even though there are, up to date, no evident new ways to make any money with it, as Ross points out, is another indication for Google following their basic aim.

These steps Google takes are not a long shot from Ted Nelson‘s ‘Proposal for a Universal Electronic Publishing System and Archive’ (1981), which he named Xanadu. Nelson’s first implementation (though incomplete) of the Xanadu was released in 1998, ironically the same year that the two students started Google. Though Nelson’s own approach to fulfilling his Xanadu seems to be flopping, and he has been criticized by many, his basic understanding that an Ultimate Medium, is a possibility with current technology wasn’t strange. Wired.com describes it as ‘a hackers dream’. Ted Nelson described it as follows (1981):

“Xanadu is the ultimate archive—with each element of this archive, however, constantly in process; viewed in hierarchies, and yet with alternative hierarchies always available; with the back end (knowledge structure) and front end (depiction for the current display device) abstracted and split apart so that each user may have her preferred view of the information. Xanadu combines the benefits of anarchy with a strength derived from an initial, powerful central design; the aim was to be general enough to support nearly any imaginable media eventuality.”

As Google is turning the web’s anarchy into a massive system of their own, providing all sorts of media, while remaining the starting interface, it seems well on it’s way to a similar vision. Also its simple, yet very broad scope of wanting to gather all the world’s information fits in this vision.

Stross remains in the safe zone of factual analyses, such as that Google has displaced Microsoft, just as Microsoft displaced IBM, and that for the last couple of decades no company was able to remain market leader for over 2 decades.

It’s certainly not impossible that Google has to pass on the torch, in the sense that there are so many uncertainties caused by the anarchy of the web. As mentioned in the book the rise of Social Networks, already pose a ‘disturbance’ to Google’s information collection. Google’s software with its so-called crawlers to gather information on the web had relatively little resistance until recently. But Facebook, a Social Networks with many users, and new applications, that amount to all kind of new information, takes form of a walled garden for Google’s crawlers, and keeps Google out.

Altogether Stross’ book is a great factual analysis, easy to read, which deserves both scholars’ and general readers’ interest. Its sharp information and broad gathering of relevant quotations from important people in the business, both from Google and other businesses such as Microsoft, assure the reader of acquiring new information. It is also an interesting basis for a more theoretical approach of what might become of Google, and what should become of it, as the worlds current authority in collecting information.

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