Books@Google

The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media, and Technology Success of Our Time

by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed
Delta, 336 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The expanding jumble of art, science, metaphysics, practical knowledge, merchandise, gossip, and other trivia stored electronically on the World Wide Web is directly descended from the unprocessed babble transmitted haphazardly by word of mouth and from place to place from which our ancestors forged the wisdom of our species. For millennia this babble had been held in tribal memory, in languages and cultures long forgotten, until the exigencies of burgeoning commerce some six thousand years ago—a recent event in the long career of Homo sapiens—compelled the invention of written language, the sine qua non of today’s documented world including the Web itself.

The invention during World War II of electronic memory and of the World Wide Web a mere seventeen years ago originally as a way for scientists to communicate with distant colleagues is a further—perhaps the ultimate—evolution of the momentous transition from collective memory dependent largely on mnemonic verse to prosaic inscription on clay, stone, and paper. With these primitive tools human beings were at last able to record, in language of great beauty and profound understanding, the lore and wisdom accumulated during our long prehistory. What further triumphs of the human spirit may be shaped from the World Wide Web, should our species survive its current folly, are beyond imagining.

In 1998 two Stanford graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founded Google.com, a search engine that uses a better technology than had previously existed for indexing and retrieving information from the immense miscellany of the World Wide Web and for ranking the Web sites that contain this information according to their relevance to particular queries based on the number of links from the rest of the Internet to a given item. This PageRank system transformed the Web from its original purpose as a scientists’ grapevine and from the random babble it soon became a searchable resource providing factual data of variable quality to millions of users. And once again it was the exigencies of commerce that transformed Google itself from an ingenious search technology without a business plan to a hugely profitable enterprise offering a variety of services including e-mail, news, video, maps, and its current, expensive, and utterly heroic, if not quixotic, effort to digitize the public domain contents of the books and other holdings of major libraries. This new program would provide users wherever in the world Internet connections exist access to millions of titles while enabling libraries themselves to serve millions of users without adding a foot of shelf space or incurring a penny of delivery expense.

Spurred by Google’s initiative and by the lower costs, higher profits, and immense reach of unmediated digital distribution, book publishers and other copyright holders must at last overcome their historic inertia and agree, like music publishers, to market their proprietary titles in digital form either to be read on line or, more likely, to be printed on demand at point of sale, in either case for a fee equal to the publishers’ normal costs and profit and…


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