By Chet Yarbrough
By Steven Levy
Narrated by L.J. Ganser
“In the Plex”, is a journey into “the force” of Google nation. Like Star Wars, Steven Levy reveals good and evil inherent in “the force” as it applies to the Google federation. Levy offers an insightful history of Google’s origin, philosophy, and growth.
Google exemplifies the “information age” by creating a search engine for all human knowledge and experience. Google endeavors to accumulate a comprehensive data base of the world’s knowledge while creating a search engine for anyone seeking information.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin create Google nation out of the joy that comes from freedom to choose what you want to do. They had no particular notion of financial gain but loved the idea of systematizing and accessing information.
What if every human being had the knowledge of the world at their fingertips? Page and Brin believe knowledge makes the world a better place to live because information is the fountainhead of scientific and social progress.
On the one hand, Page and Brin, believe their moral and corporate responsibility is to do no evil; on the other hand, each has experienced evil as a natural consequence of information accumulation.
Hackers with credentials as big as government and as small as an individual may compromise anyone’s and everyone’s privacy by stealing collected information.
Page and Brin attempt market entry into China. After one year of experience, first Brin and then Page realize that fulfilling their moral and corporate philosophy became an unachievable ideal in China. (In this critic’s opinion, their moral and corporate philosophy is unachievable in any nation because of human nature.)
Levy notes that Google’s information data base was hacked and proprietary and personal information was stolen with possible collusion of the Chinese government; i.e. the hacking episode revealed information detrimental to individuals and damaging to Google’ corporate integrity.
Levy explains–the CEO of the company [from 2001 to 2011], Eric Schmidt, believed Google should stay in China because of its economic potential but Page and Brin disagreed. The truth of China’s involvement in the hack may never be proven but the reality of evil coming from accumulated information makes a mockery of the ideal of Google’s motto, “do no evil”. Like “the force” in Star Wars, information is both good and evil, depending on its use and purpose. Google closes its doors in China.
It seems from Levy’s research that Page and Brin are pragmatic idealists, a contradiction in terms. Facts are facts; even when they get in the way of idealism. Page and Brin have had to come to grips with contradictions inherent in gathering, searching, and disseminating information but it is profitability, as well as customer good, that weighs in their metric assessment of evil and good.
When does gathering information become an invasion of privacy? Does Google rationalize their idealistic belief that “Google does what is good for the customer”? Levy infers Google does; particularly since they purchased “Double Click” which specializes in profiling consumers.
Are advertisement’ cookies good for the customer? Hmmmmm. Is the customer benefited by focused advertising from companies that pay Google for analyzing personal likes and dislikes? Page and Brin rationalize that consumers are benefited because they get unsolicited advertisement about products they want and use. However, the data that Page and Brin focus on is bottom line profitability from advertising revenues. Is that bad? No, it is the American way, but it is pragmatic; not idealistic.
Another disconcerting area of concern is “Latitude”, a Google app described by Levy that tracks users wherever they go and updates every 5 minutes, with a retained record of locations. Page and Brin skirt the concern of privacy by noting that “Latitude” is an opt-in application with recorded information, delete-able upon request. Nice, but one wonders about the hacker that steals the app’s code to track an unsuspecting victim. In fairness, Google is concerned about the privacy issue and tries to mitigate evil use of the application.
Finally, there is “google maps” and its evolution into virtual pictures of streetscapes that initially revealed the faces of people as they walked by mapped locations. It is an amazing tool but its potential for invasion of privacy is “Big Brother-ish”. Google has modified the pictures to obscure human faces and license plate numbers; i.e. more evidence of their desire to “do no evil”.
Collection and search of information is as potentially evil as it is good. Google’s explosive growth as a search engine skunk works is as likely to be a tool of a Star War’s like Evil Empire as a Star War’s Federation. The metrics of Google’s growth boggles the mind; particularly when one considers the bulk of their employees (engineers) are some of the smartest people on the planet:
(Just for fun see attached Star Wars takeoff posted by another Google company, YouTube.:)
Levy’s book reveals the best and worst of the Google complex. Page and Brin are among the best and brightest of the 21st century but Google’s founders and employees, like all human beings, are fallible and subject to all the sins of humankind; not the least of which is hubris and greed.