Friday, January 8, 2010

Engine of civilization

As Ken Auletta shows in Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, Google is evil -- among other things

The following review was recently published on the Books page at the History News Network.

About a year ago, I got a legal document in the (snail) mail from the representatives of Google. As I recall, the company was offering me $300 for the digital rights to publish each edition of my books, whether they were in print or not. There would be some royalty payment for any copies that got sold electronically through Google, though it was hard for me to tell at a glance how that was going to work.

My first reaction was impatience: I was deeply mired in the quotidian demands of everyday life like kids' coats, dinner, an evening's work of grading papers. My second reaction was wariness: Beware of big corporations bearing gifts, especially ones with a slogan like "Don't be evil."

I went back a little while later and signed off on the agreement (online).

In the time since, I've felt twinges of regret and unease about the decision, though when I recently received an online notification from the Southern District of New York, which is handling what is now a gargantuan court fight that has embroiled publishers, libraries, and Google rivals around the world, I decided against availing myself of the invitation to change my mind, in part out of laziness.

Then I read Ken Auletta's Googled. I've now decided, narrowly but firmly, to leave matters where they stand. This is not because Auletta himself would necessarily endorse my decision, but because his book is as thorough and impartial a piece of journalism you're going to find on Google specifically and the transformation of the media generally. Auletta is that rarest of things: a real reporter. He talked to lots of people, attended lots of meetings -- and of course, getting access to both is to a great degree what defines reporting excellence -- and he's done lots of contextual research. (Doesn't hurt that Auletta has been at this for a long time at The New Yorker, and wrote landmark analyses like his definitive 1992 book Three Blind Mice, which charted the decline of network television at the hands of cable.) I may not have made the right decision, but I've made an informed one.

Auletta does three core things well in this book. First, he charts the meteoric rise of Google a decade ago from the meeting of its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in the digital hothouse of Stanford University. Auletta foregrounds the extraordinary symbiosis between the introverted Page and the extroverted Brin, and their passion for developing an Internet search engine geared to the needs and interests of users rather than advertisers. This passion led them to develop a company organized around a culture of creative engineering rather than one of corporate management, and one determined to forgo short-term profit -- or any profit at all -- until they felt they had perfected their product. This created strains at Google, but once the pair developed a formula for unobtrusive, but highly targeted advertising rooted in exceptionally good consumer data, the company exploded into an Internet superpower.

The second issue Auletta looks at in depth is the dismay, suspicion and anger Google's emergence has engendered in domains that include longtime rivals like Microsoft, one-time allies like Apple and (both of which invested in Google and now face the prospect of competing with it), and the U.S. Government, not to mention a privacy advocates and consumers. Acquisitions like the data-collecting company DoubleClick, along with massively popular video site YouTube, have tremendously expanded the potential domain of Google far beyond a search engine, as have forays into digital books and (most recently) smartphones. Competitors perceive the dangerous shadow of monopoly; government leaders and consumer advocates fret over privacy concerns in a company whose stated desire is to anticipate your every wish. Page and Brin talk endlessly about their desire to do good in the world, and the sacred sense of trust that they would comprise at their own peril. But they show themselves to be remarkably obtuse in addressing their inevitable moral fallibility or the danger that their information could fall into the wrong hands. No one ever seems to consider the possibility, for example, that China, a nation in which Google complies with censorship demands, or even the United States, could force Google data to be turned over at non-virtual gunpoint and used the for the most malignant of purposes.

The third leg of Auletta's sturdy stool is the fate of old media -- books, magazines, music, movies, and television -- not as corporate enterprises but rather as old forms of cultural expression in the new digital order. Auletta repeatedly criticizes the stewards of these media for their failure to anticipate the coming technological tsunami, though in fairness to them it's hard to expect anyone to preemptively capitulate an entire way of life and business. In any case, one finishes Auletta's analysis of this situation with a sense of optimism. The record business may not survive, but music will. Books may not be typically bound with paper and glue, but the word "book" will still mean something, albeit virtually. It's hard to see in the short term how YouTube will make much money, but that's not really our problem.

Actually, the state of the Web reminds me a little of the state of radio a century ago: a mish-mash of content, some of it amateurish, some of it quite powerful, that eventually sorted itself out as a viable cultural as well as economic proposition. Culture has a life independent of capitalism, though the situation I'm describing is hardly a violation of the way industrial capitalism has functioned in the last century and a half. Someone will always be making a lot of money. But it was never likely to be small-timers like me no matter what happens.

That's why I'm finally comfortable signing my rights over to Google. I like Google -- its Blogger application makes this blog possible -- and trust it to a point, but don't take the "don't be evil" very seriously. As Auletta and others point out, if Google seems fearsome now, so did IBM twenty years ago. Or Microsoft a decade ago. Or Facebook will in a few years. I'd love the U.S. government to publish my work digitally, but that train left the station when it passed on the telegraph 150 years ago. Google has come forward, so Google it is. The point for me, as a content provider, is to get my work out there. And if, in the aftermath of a catastrophe, my digital imprint vanishes entirely -- something I regard as quite possible -- there's always the possibility of a stray hardcover or paperback book ending up in a museum or library (perhaps the same thing). You work hard and you take your chances. That, for better or worse, is my corporate policy.