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A Brave New Digital World?

Tyler Shores

GoogledKen Auletta
Googled: The End of the World as We Know It
Virgin Books, 2010
400 Pages
ISBN 978-0753522660

“I fear theirs is an old story about how good people deceive themselves.”
-Lawrence Lessig

While this foreboding sentiment might sound like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel, it is in fact directed at one of the world’s most trusted and ubiquitous companies. In Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, Ken Auletta tells the trusted, ubiquitous company’s story, offering along the way a guided tour of the brave new digital world in which we now live. “The world has been Googled,” writes Auletta, swept up and fundamentally altered by the last decade’s wave of technological change, stemming from the Internet and new media (think of “The End of the World as We Know It” more in the R.E.M. and less in the post-apocalyptic sense, and you follow Auletta’s logic).

As would be expected, Auletta—a longtime contributor to the New Yorker on the Internet’s cultural impact—presents Google as a profoundly influential media company with far-reaching ambitions. “If you can solve search,” Google co-founder Larry Page explains, “that means you can answer any question. Which means you can do basically anything.” From this pronouncement follows Auletta’s straightforward thesis that “any company with Google’s power needs to be scrutinized.” We cannot begin to scrutinize Google, Auletta adds, until we have understood that “Google search produces not a tangible product but something abstract: knowledge.”

While admirably condensed, this account of Google’s function raises certain questions about how we might distinguish between information and knowledge—questions which Auletta too often fails adequately to address. Is access to information, for instance, the same thing as knowledge? Though Auletta does not answer this question, he does opine that information has become the new currency of power in the online era. This power shift is reflected in Auletta’s interviews with advertising moguls who demonstrate a totalizing desire to possess more and more consumer information and who have promoted and invested in technology bearing creepily Orwellian overtones: television sets with built-in facial recognition software and “brain-reading” algorithms, all in an effort to make advertising more efficient and thus more profitable.

Throughout Googled, Auletta provides rare insight into the inner workings of the company’s recondite yet famously fun-spirited unconventionality. For outsiders looking in, Auletta’s interviews with Google insiders as well as competitors will be of unquestionable interest; the book is full of both amusing and telling anecdotes. Few people may have heard, for example, that an early candidate for the company name was “The Whatbox,” which was finally rejected by Google co-founder Sergey Brin because it “sounded too much like ‘Wetbox,’ which sounded like some sort of porn site.” In another instance Brin once requested an example of a recent Harvard Law graduate’s work, saying, “I need you to draw me a contract. . . .I need the contract to be for me to sell my soul to the devil.”

Auletta also touches on the familiar yet vitally important issue of privacy in the Digital Age, or what he dubs The Google Era, in which “the issue of privacy [has become] entwined with the issue of power.” He goes on to draw attention to the contradictory attitudes held by many towards privacy—distrusting the government and corporations like Google on the one hand, while parading the most private of thoughts on Facebook and Twitter on the other. Accordingly, our misgivings about privacy should not simply be channeled into criticism of Google, Auletta would argue, but rather taken as symptomatic of the more general indiscretion of our digital culture. In alluding to Neil Postman’s famous anticipation of media culture in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Auletta suggests that we are all at risk of being implicated in such a state:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think […] Orwell feared those would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Prompted by Huxley’s insights, Auletta asks, “Is Google good or evil?” The answer would seem to be yes and no. Auletta takes pains to portray instances of Google’s goodness, as in their refusal in 2006 to furnish the US Department of Justice with search records (AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo silently consented). Perhaps, then, the Google slogan, “Don’t be evil,” is more than just a cute corporate motto; perhaps it is emblematic of a rare form of corporate virtuousness. And yet, such virtuous acts aside, it must be admitted that for most users, Google is good simply because it is free, a symbol of the democratization of information.

But matters of good and evil are, of course, never clear-cut. Some of Google’s detractors would allege that the company’s greatest strengths are also its weaknesses. As an engineering company, Google is obsessed with making things better and faster, all the time, which has led critics to complain that Google lacks a social gene, especially when it comes to issues of privacy or transparency. Questions of knowledge cannot be solved in a vacuum; thus, information “needs a social context.” This is undoubtedly to oversimplify the issue, and indeed Google’s competitors do seem overly persuaded by an image of the company ‘s Vulcanized over-reliance on metrics and data in place of human judgment. (“Google is just focused on CPU—central processing computers—and ignores the processing of the human brain,” writes John Borthwick, former VP of Technology at Time Warner). Auletta is quick to note, however, that privacy issues have long been a source of criticism for Google, which inevitably strikes a precarious balance between knowing enough and knowing too much.

What is Google, then? Is it, as Eric Schmidt says, “a moral force” for good? Or is it “The Evil Empire” that many of its competitors claim it to be? Whatever the case may be, the Google story is far from over; questions and answers will continue for as long as the company continues to be a major cultural force. Whether or not the planet has indeed been “Googled,” Auletta’s book remains an intelligent and timely investigation into the rapidly evolving world of new media and internet in which we live.

(For those that are interested, you may also wish to visit Ken Auletta’s website, in which you can see the “lost chapter [1]” from Googled).

Tyler Shores [2] is reading for an MSt in English Literature at Christ Church College, Oxford. He previously worked at Google for the Authors@Google programme.