The End of the World as We Know It
Penguin Press: 400 pp., $27.95
" Google" has become as common a word as any in the modern vocabulary. We google phone numbers instead of picking up a phone book; we google for dirt on potential dates and celebrities; we google ourselves, to see what trace we've left in the digital ether. Google has become synonymous with user-friendly efficiency, via its search engine and its many free and easy-to-use offshoots. But as used in the title of Ken Auletta's new book, "Googled: The End of the World as We Know It," the word takes on a more aggressive edge. "Googled" is the sound of old media being outfoxed, slamdunked, left for dead.
Auletta, a columnist for the New Yorker and author of numerous books, steps into a crowded field; there have been at least six books about Google in the last four years. And it is a tough moment to write a book such as this, because we're in the thick of things: It is obvious, even to the staunchest naysayers, that the Internet has altered our way of life in fundamental ways.
Not at all clear, however, is what will emerge from this turmoil. Publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, movie and TV studios, ad agencies -- all are struggling to find a foothold in the future. As Auletta points out, the sheer velocity of change sets this era apart from others: "It took telephones seventy-one years to penetrate 50 percent of American homes, electricity fifty-two years, and TV three decades. The internet reached more than 50 percent of Americans in a mere decade."
Google can't take credit for the technological upheaval, but founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin certainly took advantage of the possibilities. As Auletta frequently points out, this is a duo with a passion for disruption. They met while doing PhD studies at Stanford and have since applied their ruthlessly rational mind-set to questioning some of the most basic elements of contemporary life. Combine this attitude with the utopian spirit of the early Web days -- Auletta frames Brin and Page as the spawn of the free-code, anti- Microsoft generation, mentioning their trips to the techno-anarchic festival Burning Man -- and it's easy to see the roots of Google's drive to shake up the status quo.
Indeed, the whole Google story stands in opposition to any business-as-usual sensibility. The company started in a California garage with an innovative idea for a new kind of search engine but didn't figure out how to make money until 2001, with the development of a radical new way of charging per click for small ads run next to search results. As has so often been the case with Google's innovations, this would have major ramifications for a long-established industry.
Auletta illustrates that with an anecdote about Viacom Chief Executive Mel Karmazin's visit to Google. The media mogul is aghast at Google's ability to precisely track the effectiveness of ads, replacing the intangible qualities of emotion, aura and psychology with metrics and thereby demystifying the traditional ad man's sales pitch.
Having transformed the online ad business, Google popularized cloud commuting (offering free word processing, e-mail and calendar online -- great for Joe Consumer but a huge threat to software companies like Microsoft) and establishing Google News (aggregating stories from 25,000 online publications, much to the consternation of the news industry).
In his free time -- Google employees get to devote 20% of their working hours to personal projects -- Page assembled a machine to digitize bound books. "We're going to scan all the books in the world," he proclaimed. The scale of the ambition is staggering, like a science fiction geek's fantasy of a cosmic über-brain. For Page, the idea is for Google to "understand everything in the world and give it back to you."
Like so many utopians, the Google visionaries have ridden roughshod over assumptions about how the world works and the fair and proper way of doing things. Intellectual property rights are merrily disregarded. As Columbia University law professor Tim Wu told Auletta, "If they had a copyright lawyer among their founders, they never would have started the company. The basic business of a search engine is to copy everything. . . . From day one, Google went out and copied the whole Internet."
Putting other companies out of business by beating them at their own game is what capitalism is all about. Goo- gle's founders, though, see themselves as do-gooders; early on, they concocted a core motto, "Don't be evil." Still, as it's become more of a behemoth, Google has accumulated more and more "frenemies," as Auletta incongruously puts it: Companies, as varied as old media and Microsoft, that fear or resent the online giant even as they find it necessary to cooperate.
Reading "Googled," it's hard to know whom to root for. Executives like Karmazin come across as quaint P.T. Barnum-style hucksters whining about having their toys and easy profit margins taken away. But even though Auletta presents Google as the fearless young turk pulling the rug from under the bloated fat cats, Brin and Page come across as oddball cold fishes taking a geeky delight in dismantling existing structures because they think they can do it all better. There are occasional hints that Auletta doesn't like them much either: In the acknowledgments, he snipes, "Google's founders and many of its executives share a zeal to digitize books, but don't have much interest in reading them," noting that Brin and Page initially thought that participating in his book "would be an 'inefficient' use of their time."
Auletta suggests that the company runs into trouble because it is so wrapped up in the idea of itself as virtuous that it can't understand others' concerns about privacy or monopoly issues. There is, however, a strong idealistic component to Google: It provides quality services to the consumer that don't cost a dime. "You can't beat free" is a constant refrain here. And yet, for all that consumers love Google, workers -- especially those employed in the industries they've outmoded -- could be forgiven for being wary.
"Googled" functions as a fine primer for anyone looking to get a grip on the company's history and its repercussions on the current media landscape. The prose is workmanlike, and Auletta doesn't have a polemical take, let alone any prophesies. Mostly he asks questions: Will consumers happily give up their privacy for free services? Will we still be reading books in 20 years, or going to movie theaters? Can advertising work on social networks? Will the government intervene and rein in the Internet? He doesn't have answers but maybe no one does right now. As Clay Shirky has eloquently noted, "The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place." And when someone seeks reassurance that the good old media ways will continue, "they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution."
Press is writer in New York who has worked in both old and new media.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times