Searching For Answers? 'Googled' Disappoints

'Googled'
Googled: The End Of The World As We Know It
By Ken Auletta
Hardcover, 400 pages
The Penguin Press
List price: $27.95

Read An Excerpt

In his new book, Googled, New Yorker writer Ken Auletta sketches Google co-founder Sergey Brin as gregarious and somewhat flashy, a man who keeps a spacesuit in his office in anticipation of a tourist trip aboard the Soyuz. The other co-founder, Larry Page, meanwhile, is more reserved. He's the kind of billionaire who, when dragged to parties, shuns schmoozing with fellow moguls in favor of standing at the sidelines taking snapshots.

Each of these denim-clad prodigies is now 36 — two decades younger than the third member of their triumvirate, Eric Schmidt. As the rare corporate senior manager with a Ph.D. in computer science, Schmidt provides the founders with "adult supervision."

Their shared project is utopian, their ethos is democratic, and their way of doing business is idiosyncratic. One scene in Googled finds Brin giving a playfully fiendish assignment to a lawyer interviewing to be his corporate counsel:

"I need you to draw me a contract," he says. "I need the contract to be for me to sell my soul to the devil."

This is not to suggest any satanic intentions on the company's part. And yet, the request seems contradictory, since the slogan that provides Google with its moral compass is: "Don't be evil."

Auletta's central premise in the book is that the company's numerous leaps forward — and also its occasional missteps — flow from its character as a business founded by engineers, as opposed to businessmen. On the one hand, Google favors clinical efficiency and spurns conventional wisdom; on the other, its practices seem arrogant and tone-deaf.

Consider that the beta release of its Web mail service did not include a delete button. Guided by the reasoning that Gmail offers plentiful storage and also by the paternalistic idea that deciding whether to delete a message is a waste of the user's time, the company presented itself as a squad of Mr. Spocks, logical to a fault. As Auletta puts it, "Google relied so much on science, on data and mathematical algorithms, that it was insensitive to legitimate privacy fears."

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Troy Patterson writes about books and television for Slate.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

"The engineers remain in charge," Auletta writes early on. On the next page, he quotes a former executive declaring Google "an engineering-driven and -focused culture." On the page after that, we hear an employee say, "When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems."

We get it already! Among the frustrations of the book is that its premise is also its conclusion and constant drumbeat. This is hardly the only point repeated ad nauseum. The book is rife with facts familiar not only from the books and articles Auletta cites but, at this point, from the canon of chattering-class cocktail-party knowledge. Have you gleaned any new information from this review? If so, this book may well be a pleasure. If not, it certainly will be a slog.

Given the absence of a shapely narrative or a strong point of view, Googled reads as a timeline skimming across the key moments in the company's history and providing rote miniature profiles of the key players. It suffices as a reference book, but few of its points could not be discovered by a Google search in a fraction of a second.

Excerpt: 'Googled: The End of the World As We Know It'

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It
By Ken Auletta
Hardcover, 400 pages
Penguin Press
List Price: $27.95

Preface

The world has been Googled. We don't search for information, we "Google" it. Type a question in the Google search box, as do more than 70 percent of all searchers worldwide, and in about a half second answers appear. Want to find an episode of Charlie Rose you missed, or a funny video made by some guy of his three-year-old daughter's brilliant ninety-second synopsis of Star Wars: Episode IV? Google's YouTube, with ninety million unique visitors in March 2009 — two-thirds of all Web video traffic — has it. Want to place an online ad? Google's DoubleClick is the foremost digital advertising services company. Google's advertising revenues — more than twenty billion dollars a year — account for 40 percent of all the advertising dollars spent online. In turn, Google pumps ad dollars into tens of thousands of Web sites, bringing both traffic and commerce to them. Want to read a newspaper or magazine story from anywhere in the world? Google News aggregates twenty-five thousand news sites daily. Looking for an out-of-print book or a scholarly journal? Google is seeking to make almost every book ever published available in digitized form. Schools in impoverished nations that are without textbooks can now retrieve knowledge for free. "The Internet," said Google's chief economist, Hal Varian, "makes information available. Google makes information accessible."

Google's uncorporate slogan — "Don't be evil" — appeals to Americans who embrace underdogs like Apple that stand up to giants like Microsoft. Google's is one of the world's most trusted corporate brands. Among traditional media companies — from newspapers and magazines to book publishers, television, Hollywood studios, advertising agencies, telephone companies, and Microsoft — no company inspires more awe, or more fear. There are sound reasons for traditional media to fear Google. Today, Google's software initiatives encroach on every media industry, from telephone to television to advertising to newspapers to magazines to book publishers to Hollywood studios to digital companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, or eBay. For companies built on owning and selling or distributing that information, Google can be perceived as the new "Evil Empire."

Google is run by engineers, and engineers are people who ask why: Why must we do things the way they've always been done? Why shouldn't all the books ever published be digitized? Why shouldn't we be able to read any newspaper or magazine online? Why can't we watch television for free on our computers? Why can't we make copies of our music or DVDs and share them with friends? Why can't advertising be targeted and sold without paying fat fees to the media middleman? Why can't we make phone calls more cheaply? Google's leaders are not cold businessmen; they are cold engineers. They are scientists, always seeking new answers. They seek a construct, a formula, an algorithm that both graphs and predicts behavior. They naively believe that most mysteries, including the mysteries of human behavior, are unlocked with data. Of course, Wall Street's faith in such mathematical models for derivatives helped cripple the American economy. Naivete and passion make a potent mix; combine the two with power and you have an extraordinary force, one that can effect great change for good or for ill. Google fervently believes it has a mission. "Our goal is to change the world," Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, told me. Making money, he continued, "is a technology to pay for it."

I came away from two and a half years of reporting on Google believing that its leaders genuinely want to make the world a better place. But they are in business to make money. Making money is not a dirty goal; nor is it a philanthropic activity. Any company with Google's power needs to be scrutinized. I also came away impatient with companies that spend too much time whining about Google and too little time devising an offense. Most old media companies were inexcusably slow to wake to the digital disruption.

In 2007, Eric Schmidt told me that one day Google could become a hundred-billion-dollar media company — more than twice the size of Time Warner, the Walt Disney Company, or News Corporation, the world's three largest media conglomerates. That Google might achieve this goal in less than a generation, in a time when copyright and privacy practices are being upended, when newspapers are declaring bankruptcy and in-depth journalism is endangered, when the profit margins of book publishers are squeezed along with their commitment to serious authors, when broadcast television networks dilute their programming with less expensive reality shows and unscripted fare, when cable news networks talk more than they listen, when the definitions of community and privacy are being redefined, and the way citizens read and process information is being altered, and when most traditional media models are being reconfigured by digital companies like Google — all this means that it's important to put Google under the microscope.

Brilliant engineers are at the core of the success of a company like Google. Drill down, as this book attempts to, and you'll see that engineering is a potent tool to deliver worthwhile efficiencies, and disruption as well. Google takes seriously its motto, "Don't be evil." But because we're dealing with humans not algorithms, intent sometimes matters less than effect. A company that questions everything and believes in acting without asking for permission has succeeded like few companies before. Unlike most technologies that disrupted existing business — the printed book that replaced scrolls, the telephone that replaced the telegraph, the automobile that replaced the horse and buggy, the airplane that supplanted cruise ships, the computer that supplanted typewriters — Google search produces not a tangible product but something abstract: knowledge. This makes Google both less and more vulnerable to challenge. Less because Google's prodigious Mount Everest of data is unrivaled. More because Google depends for its continued success on users and governments that trust it will not abuse this knowledge. Whether one applauds or fears this eleven-year-old company, there is no question that Google demands our attention.

Excerpted from Googled by Ken Auletta. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Ken Auletta, 2009.

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