Eyeing the engine that is Google

Shaer is a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor.

Asked in 2002 to describe the “ultimate” search engine, Google co-founder Sergey Brin half-jokingly pointed to HAL 9000, the supercomputer from the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “HAL . . . had a lot of information, could piece it together, could rationalize it,” Brin told a PBS reporter. “Now hopefully . . . it would never have a bug like HAL did where he killed the occupants of the spaceship. But that’s what we’re striving for, and I think we’ve made it a part of the way there.”

As Randall Stross writes in “Planet Google,” Brin’s response was funny, if more than a little portentous. Founded in a Stanford dorm room, Google has exponentially expanded its reach. It now dabbles in mapping, e-mail, social networking and journalism; in 2006, Google purchased YouTube, the video-sharing site. Most of the initiatives have been very successful. Some, like Google Earth, have changed the way we see ourselves.

“Every age -- coal, steel, oil -- has a raw material that defines its historical moment,” writes Stross, a columnist for the New York Times and a professor at San Jose State. “In ours it is information, and Google has become its preeminent steward.”

“Planet Google” -- deftly paced and sharply argued -- is being marketed, somewhat misleadingly, as an “insider’s account” of the Google compound in Mountain View. Stross did get unprecedented access, but he rarely traffics in the kind of boardroom drama common to so much business journalism. The brunt of the book is analytical: Is Google’s “preeminent” stewardship problematic? And can the company continue to diversify without losing consumer trust?

In 2005, Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, famously estimated that it would take his company about 300 years to organize all the world’s information. He framed the quest in Herculean terms. Stross has his doubts: “What the prospect of growth without limit means for the public is something more complicated than a pure thrill. It’s a prospect that has appeared so quickly, historically speaking, that we have not really had time to take a good look at what Google has become, let alone to consider what comes next.”


“What Would Google Do?,” by media guru and journalist Jeff Jarvis, is considerably less equivocal. “Google’s moral of universal empowerment is the sometimes-forgotten ideal of democracy,” he writes, slipping into poetic reverie. He announces that “Google is perhaps the most powerful single tool that can be used anywhere on earth”; later he states that religion’s vast presence on the Internet means that even “God is not immune from the power and influence of Google.”

Nowhere does he stop to question the nature of such authority, or even to wonder at its scale. The company’s power, for Jarvis, is simply and happily messianic: Ignore it, and you’re doomed to wander the digital hinterlands.

The book is buttressed by a deft conclusion and a more digressive introduction. In the first section, Jarvis looks at the tenets of Google’s Web strategy. Among them: Establish channels through which information can flow, and then get out of the way. Embrace openness. Talk with your audience. Give the people control.

In the second, he applies those tenets. What would a Google hospital look like? How about a Google cola? Or a Google publisher? (This last example opens Jarvis up to a charge of hypocrisy. If he was a True Believer, Jarvis admits, “What Would Google Do?” would be made available online, for free. “But I did make money from a publisher’s advance,” he writes. “That is why you are reading this as a book. Sorry. Dog’s gotta eat.”)

Some of the “thought-experiments” stretch the bounds of credulity; a few are simply dull. For instance, in imagining a “Google car,” Jarvis can come up with only a few rote ideas. Consumers could customize their car’s color, he theorizes, or its design (an idea already exploited by Toyota’s Scion). And a Google restaurant? Just a place where people could vote for their favorite menu items. Not everything is subject to the magic of Google.

Still, Jarvis is a canny writer, and an entertaining one. The tone that drives his popular blog, Buzzmachine, has arrived intact on the bound page. The arguments are cleanly delivered; the prose is crisp and alive. More important, Jarvis never stumbles when it comes to the big picture. It’s not technology that powers the Internet, he writes -- it’s people and the connections they make.