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How Google Dominates Us

Sergey Brin and Larry Page; drawing by John Springs

Tweets Alain de Botton, philosopher, author, and now online aphorist:

The logical conclusion of our relationship to computers: expectantly to type “what is the meaning of my life” into Google.

You can do this, of course. Type “what is th” and faster than you can find the e Google is sending choices back at you: what is the cloud? what is the mean? what is the american dream? what is the illuminati? Google is trying to read your mind. Only it’s not your mind. It’s the World Brain. And whatever that is, we know that a twelve-year-old company based in Mountain View, California, is wired into it like no one else.

Google is where we go for answers. People used to go elsewhere or, more likely, stagger along not knowing. Nowadays you can’t have a long dinner-table argument about who won the Oscar for that Neil Simon movie where she plays an actress who doesn’t win an Oscar; at any moment someone will pull out a pocket device and Google it. If you need the art-history meaning of “picturesque,” you could find it in The Book of Answers, compiled two decades ago by the New York Public Library’s reference desk, but you won’t. Part of Google’s mission is to make the books of answers redundant (and the reference librarians, too). “A hamadryad is a wood-nymph, also a poisonous snake in India, and an Abyssinian baboon,” says the narrator of John Banville’s 2009 novel, The Infinities. “It takes a god to know a thing like that.” Not anymore.

The business of finding facts has been an important gear in the workings of human knowledge, and the technology has just been upgraded from rubber band to nuclear reactor. No wonder there’s some confusion about Google’s exact role in that—along with increasing fear about its power and its intentions.

Most of the time Google does not actually have the answers. When people say, “I looked it up on Google,” they are committing a solecism. When they try to erase their embarrassing personal histories “on Google,” they are barking up the wrong tree. It is seldom right to say that anything is true “according to Google.” Google is the oracle of redirection. Go there for “hamadryad,” and it points you to Wikipedia. Or the Free Online Dictionary. Or the Official Hamadryad Web Site (it’s a rock band, too, wouldn’t you know). Google defines its mission as “to organize the world’s information,” not to possess it or accumulate it. Then again, a substantial portion of the world’s printed books have now been copied onto the company’s servers, where they share space with millions of hours of video and detailed multilevel imagery of the entire globe, from satellites and from its squadrons of roving street-level cameras. Not to mention the great and growing trove of information Google possesses regarding the interests and behavior of, approximately, everyone.

When I say Google “possesses” all this information, that’s not the same as owning it. What it means to own information is very much in flux.

In barely a decade Google has made itself a global brand bigger than Coca-Cola or GE; it has created more wealth faster than any company in history; it dominates the information economy. How did that happen? It happened more or less in plain sight. Google has many secrets but the main ingredients of its success have not been secret at all, and the business story has already provided grist for dozens of books. Steven Levy’s new account, In the Plex, is the most authoritative to date and in many ways the most entertaining. Levy has covered personal computing for almost thirty years, for Newsweek and Wired and in six previous books, and has visited Google’s headquarters periodically since 1999, talking with its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and, as much as has been possible for a journalist, observing the company from the inside. He has been able to record some provocative, if slightly self-conscious, conversations like this one in 2004 about their hopes for Google:

“It will be included in people’s brains,” said Page. “When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information.”
“That’s true,” said Brin. “Ultimately I view Google as a way to augment your brain with the knowledge of the world. Right now you go into your computer and type a phrase, but you can imagine that it could be easier in the future, that you can have just devices you talk into, or you can have computers that pay attention to what’s going on around them….”
…Page said, “Eventually you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.”

In 2004, Google was still a private company, five years old, already worth $25 billion, and handling about 85 percent of Internet searches. Its single greatest innovation was the algorithm called PageRank, developed by Page and Brin when they were Stanford graduate students running their research project from a computer in a dorm room. The problem was that most Internet searches produced useless lists of low-quality results. The solution was a simple idea: to harvest the implicit knowledge already embodied in the architecture of the World Wide Web, organically evolving.

The essence of the Web is the linking of individual “pages” on websites, one to another. Every link represents a recommendation—a vote of interest, if not quality. So the algorithm assigns every page a rank, depending on how many other pages link to it. Furthermore, all links are not valued equally. A recommendation is worth more when it comes from a page that has a high rank itself. The math isn’t trivial—PageRank is a probability distribution, and the calculation is recursive, each page’s rank depending on the ranks of pages that depend…and so on. Page and Brin patented PageRank and published the details even before starting the company they called Google.

Most people have already forgotten how dark and unsignposted the Internet once was. A user in 1996, when the Web comprised hundreds of thousands of “sites” with millions of “pages,” did not expect to be able to search for “Olympics” and automatically find the official site of the Atlanta games. That was too hard a problem. And what was a search supposed to produce for a word like “university”? AltaVista, then the leading search engine, offered up a seemingly unordered list of academic institutions, topped by the Oregon Center for Optics.

Levy recounts a conversation between Page and an AltaVista engineer, who explained that the scoring system would rank a page higher if “university” appeared multiple times in the headline. AltaVista seemed untroubled that the Oregon center did not qualify as a major university. A conventional way to rank universities would be to consult experts and assess measures of quality: graduate rates, retention rates, test scores. The Google approach was to trust the Web and its numerous links, for better and for worse.

PageRank is one of those ideas that seem obvious after the fact. But the business of Internet search, young as it was, had fallen into some rigid orthodoxies. The main task of a search engine seemed to be the compiling of an index. People naturally thought of existing technologies for organizing the world’s information, and these were found in encyclopedias and dictionaries. They could see that alphabetical order was about to become less important, but they were slow to appreciate how dynamic and ungraspable their target, the Internet, really was. Even after Page and Brin flipped on the light switch, most companies continued to wear blindfolds.

The Internet had entered its first explosive phase, boom and then bust for many ambitious startups, and one thing everyone knew was that the way to make money was to attract and retain users. The buzzword was “portal”—the user’s point of entry, like Excite, Go.com, and Yahoo—and portals could not make money by rushing customers into the rest of the Internet. “Stickiness,” as Levy says, “was the most desired metric in websites at the time.” Portals did not want their search functions to be too good. That sounds stupid, but then again how did Google intend to make money when it charged users nothing? Its user interface at first was plain, minimalist, and emphatically free of advertising—nothing but a box for the user to type a query, followed by two buttons, one to produce a list of results and one with the famously brash tag “I’m feeling lucky.”

The Google founders, Larry and Sergey, did everything their own way. Even in the unbuttoned culture of Silicon Valley they stood out from the start as originals, “Montessori kids” (per Levy), unconcerned with standards and proprieties, favoring big red gym balls over office chairs, deprecating organization charts and formal titles, showing up for business meetings in roller-blade gear. It is clear from all these books that they believed their own hype; they believed with moral fervor in the primacy and power of information. (Sergey and Larry did not invent the company’s famous motto—“Don’t be evil”—but they embraced it, and now they may as well own it.)

As they saw it from the first, their mission encompassed not just the Internet but all the world’s books and images, too. When Google created a free e-mail service—Gmail—its competitors were Microsoft, which offered users two megabytes of storage of their past and current e-mail, and Yahoo, which offered four megabytes. Google could have trumped that with six or eight; instead it provided 1,000—a gigabyte. It doubled that a year later and promised “to keep giving people more space forever.”

They have been relentless in driving computer science forward. Google Translate has achieved more in machine translation than the rest of the world’s artificial intelligence experts combined. Google’s new mind-reading type-ahead feature, Google Instant, has “to date” (boasts the 2010 annual report) “saved our users over 100 billion keystrokes and counting.” (If you are seeking information about the Gobi Desert, for example, you receive results well before you type the word “desert.”)

Somewhere along the line they gave people the impression that they didn’t care for advertising—that they scarcely had a business plan at all. In fact it’s clear that advertising was fundamental to their plan all along. They did scorn conventional marketing, however; their attitude seemed to be that Google would market itself. As, indeed, it did. Google was a verb and a meme. “The media seized on Google as a marker of a new form of behavior,” writes Levy.

Endless articles rhapsodized about how people would Google their blind dates to get an advance dossier or how they would type in ingredients on hand to Google a recipe or use a telephone number to Google a reverse lookup. Columnists shared their self-deprecating tales of Googling themselves…. A contestant on the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? arranged with his brother to tap Google during the Phone-a-Friend lifeline….And a fifty-two-year-old man suffering chest pains Googled “heart attack symptoms” and confirmed that he was suffering a coronary thrombosis.
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