#PoliticsAndThePressSaturday, August 23, 2014
Search no evil
For The Herald
With the vulture conflict raging in Argentina it is a good time to condemn the global capitalist system as evil but this is also the week a major firm that once promised not to ever be evil marked its tenth anniversary since going public.
Google is arguably the symbol of globalization and of the information era. Its history carries the self-made millionaires dream: two university friends come up with a brilliant idea in a garage and change history. Its mission statement promises to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It is too good a fairytale to be true.
They would tell you in Argentina these days that the “vulture” Paul Singer would likely not agree with one of the items on Google’s “Ten things we know to be true” in the About Us section of the company. Commandment number 6 goes, “You can make money without doing evil.” In the prospectus founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page co-bylined at the Initial Public Offering (IPO) in August 19, 2004, they said they aspired “to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place” and that in searching and organizing the entirety of the Planet’s information, “Google has a responsibility to the world.”
But the search giant is also increasingly turning into a source for dystopias and control fear, which is exactly contrary to its original spirit and yet it makes a great deal of sense to its other mission in the world: making money.
Ten years is a long time in today’s fast-changing technology world. When Google was founded in 1998 the world was bracing for the dot.com bubble that would burst at the turn of the millennium. When the search behemoth went public, burst memories were still fresh and many people predicted the Google experience would not last long.
“Just as Google came out of nowhere to unseat Yahoo as the leading search engine, so might another company do this to Google,” predicted the investment guru Whitney Tilson in what it is by now a famed column shortly before Google’s IPO. “I admire Google and what it has accomplished — and I'm a happy user — but I am quite certain that there is only a fairly shallow, narrow moat around its business. What are the odds that it is the leading search engine in five years (much less 20)? 50/50 at best, I suspect, and I'd wager that odds are at least 90% that its profit margins and growth rate will be materially lower five years from now.”
A decade later, Google shares are now worth 1,300 percent more than they did on day one. Only 10 firms among hundreds have done better than Google over these 10 years. It dominates 91 percent of the world’s Internet search market. Its brand has become a verb.
But Google has also transformed its business and its strategy along the way. It is now not just a Web index that derives users to other places but is increasingly becoming a destination in its own right, offering content and commerce within its own assortment of services. In the beginning, customers were in transit. Now Google wants them to stay longer — and if possible not leave.
Over the last couple of years, both academia and science fiction have raised concerns about the underlying trends in information manipulation and monopolization by humongous companies like Google. In The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it, Jonathan Zittrain discusses the rationale that powered the birth of the Internet (generative, user-generated) and the one dominant now — gated by ready-to-use and not-to-be-modified apps. People flock to the latter because they are more stable and secure, Zittrain writes in 2008. He is still not placing Google among the “evils” although he hints at it: “Google’s choices about how to rank and calculate its search results can determine which ideas have prominence and which do not.” It sure does! And it is by now clear it is moving toward those greyer zones, as the company faces privacy and monopoly complaints, especially in the places where its role in public life is more mature, namely “home” the United States and Europe.
Science fiction has taken the more sordid step science or tech reviews are still shy to take. In The Circle, US novelist David Egger describes the life of a woman who gets a job at a top social media run by “Three Wise Men” and whose driving Orwellian axioms are “Privacy is Theft” and “Sharing is Caring.” The Circle is an obvious reference to Google but also to fellow social media giants like Facebook or Twitter, who are both well into the Major League of 21st Century corporate iconography and face — and will continue to face — growing accountability tests from users and public opinions worldwide.
A couple of US universities have set up the “Zuckerberg Files,” which they describe as a digital archive of “all public utterances” of Facebook's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. These researchers believe reading Zuckerberg’s every word could shed some light about how our world will be in the future. It is not clear Zuckerberg himself or the Google pair have that vision themselves.