Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Google in the Garden of Good and Evil

BLOOMBERG GAME CHANGERS follows Sergey Brin and Larry Page from their first meeting at Stanford to the new media mega-company on a collision course with old media businesses of newspapers, books, movies and television. Along the way to its astounding success, the co-founders have redefined advertising, created a chain of products such as Google Maps, News, Gmail and have taken on rival giants like Apple and Microsoft.
Just because a lot of other people like something, it doesn't mean that I will like it, too.  Or vice versa.  Still this is the fundamental premise behind the more superior search algorithms that Sergey Brin and Larry Page came up with.  To say that these algorithms were a hit is to make an understatement of googol proportions.  But in the 1990s, angel investor Ram Shriram was skeptical:  The world didn't need another search engine.  Maybe one of them - for example, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo!, WebCrawler, Infoseek or AltaVista - could use the technology that the Stanford boys conceived.  How wrong Shriram was, but he agreed to be one of the early investors in Google.
If that sounds like it's impossible, let's try it!
It wasn't until 1997 that I connected to the internet via dial up on AOL, and even then search wasn't to slip into my radar for a while.  The available search engines that Shriram alluded to were apparently poor.  You put in a search, and it would take some time to come back with results.  Furthermore, many of the results were irrelevant.  Brin and Page knew that behind every page were backlinks, that is, links that had previously connected to the page.  They reasoned:  the more the backlinks, the more people liked that page, and therefore the better the page was.

Again I think such reasoning was flawed.  But it worked for the vast majority of people apparently, or more accurately it dismantled the weak reasoning behind all other search engines at the time.  I read The Google Story, and apparently hundreds of thousands of people took up Google search off the bat.  Simply because it was a far better engine than any that was available.
Why can't he [Steve Jobs] be our CEO?
Those early years for Brin and Page weren't just a technology marvel, but also a stellar case study in business.  They didn't want anyone, investor or otherwise, assuming undue control of the company.  So from the $100,000 check one of them casually dropped on them, to the $25 million from two investment firms, they were well on the way to making Google Inc. a reality.  It took them a little while to come up with the business model, but their AdWords was just another stroke of (business) genius.  Still they were pressured and persuaded, no doubt reluctantly, to hire an experienced executive in Eric Schmidt to operate the company and, Brin admitted on TV, to provide parental supervision.
Don't be evil.
Privacy concerns and privacy snafus have dogged Google.  To think that every single search item and every single e-mail, plus so much more, from each and everyone one of us users, were now kept in unbelievably massive databases was to know that Big Brother indeed had eyes on all us.  But aren't those privacy transgressions evil?  There were occasions in recent years that my respect for, and faith in, Google wavered significantly.

However, this biography gave me insight on what Don't be evil must've meant for Brin, in particular.  The notion of a censoring government like that of China made him bristle and, from the looks of it, made him agonize.  But for Google to tap into 400 million Chinese on the internet, they had to agree to block censored items from appearing in the results.  He, or he and Page, realized later on that China wanted access to information from human rights activists.  That, I think, is what they meant by Don't be evil.  It was not so much the transgressions they committed, but the egregious actions others took.
These two founders really think of themselves as noble men.  They think that what they're doing is good for the world.
The Google Story continues, of course.  The boys acquired YouTube, which made for splashier news than their under-the-radar acquisition of Android.  They took on tech titans like Apple and Microsoft, and giant newcomers like Facebook.  The day-to-day parental supervision that Schmidt provided was no longer needed, and Page took the reins.  Google+ meant Google finally got what it meant to have a successful social media, although, as I've argued a number of times, it is really another brilliant information-gathering tool simply but brilliantly masquerading as social media.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

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