Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

Is this the end of the world as we know it?

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My take on “GOOGLED: the end of the world as we know it” (2009) by Ken Auletta.

Media analyst Ken Auletta (http://www.kenauletta.com/) talks about the way Google has “swept swiftly across the media horizon”. And where Google has gone,  Auletta has followed, telling the story of the shaping of Google and how it has fundamentally reshaped our world. Newspapers and advertising, radio and television,  magazines and books: each of these industries have been hit – and been hurt – by the Google “search” revolution.

So what is that revolution?  One of the best quotes in the book comes from Google co-founder Larry Page. In 2002, he told a class in Stanford, “if we solve search, that means you can answer any question. Which means you can basically do anything.”

Auletta gives us a breathless biography of the rise and rise of Google.

It became a company in 1998. By 2000 it was the best search engine on the web, having scanned and indexed billions of pages.  And in 2002, Google struck gold.

That was the year it introduced its Adwords model (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AdWords), followed a year later by Adsense.  The concept of pay-per-click gave advertisers confidence that their money was getting results. Combined with every computer user’s search history, it  gave Google access to immense amounts of data about our preferences. It’s a system which Auletta describes simply as Google’s “money making machine”.  And it was the first time but far from the last that Google struck a blow at the middleman – in this case the Mad Men of the marketing and advertising industries.

Money talks. In 2004, when Google went public in 2004, the IPO created more than 900 Google millionaires. In 2006, when Google bought YouTube for 1.65 billion dollars, the media world really  took notice. And the muttering began. Auletta charts the progress of Google – wave after wave of innovation – Gmail, Google News, Google Books, Google Earth, Google Maps.  He demonstrates in detail how those waves still threaten to swamp many of the vested interests, from the ad men to authors and newspaper editors. He talks about Google’s “fundamental innocence”, but adds to the drama and bite of the book by giving a lot of space to those who see “Googzilla” otherwise.

In Ken Auletta’s words, Google is “a wave maker”, like Apple or like Amazon. As he characterises the business world, you make waves or you ride them or you drown.

The themes which struck me most are these :
Do we see Google as a force for good? Idealist or conqueror? Benefactor or pirate?
Can online audiences be persuaded to pay for content when they’re used to getting it for free?
Is the wave led by Google one which traditional media can learn to ride? Who’s learning to surf, who’s getting their feet wet, and who’s just going under?  

A FORCE FOR GOOD?

Your answer to that first question very much depends on where you’re standing. What a great idea, for example, for Larry Page to decide “we’re going to scan all the books in the world”, call up Al Gore, and cut a deal with the Library of Congress. What a slap in the face if your income depends on publishing the printed word. That one came down to a negotiated court settlement in which Google paid compensation to authors and publishers. Auletta believes in Google’s good intentions – to spread knowledge to the world – but as he says, it boils down to a definition of property rights. I thought one of the sharpest commentaries running through the book came from Columbia University professor Tim Wu (http://timwu.org/about.html). As he put it here, “if they had a copyright lawyer among their founders they never would have started the company… From Day One, Google went out and copied the whole Internet.”

As a journalist, it struck me as it has struck many others that Google’s basic model neglects one fundamental: to get good original content, somebody has to pay. You pay authors, you pay journalists; bloggers donate their time for free. You need substantial upfront investment for a foreign correspondent, an investigative reporter, a historian conducting indepth research.  Is it really a positive step forward to try to sell advertising to underwrite the next War and Peace? To find a wealthy backer for a new Origin of Species? Couldn’t this trend in fact take us back to a world of rich amateurs and pure obsessives, to a world where investors are once again focussing on the hits, and the long tail suffers?

A lot of the argument about Google focusses on what drives it. Auletta begins the book by stating that this is “a company that questions everything and believes in acting without asking for permission.”  He sees the engineering mentality in Google as the source of its strength and of a certain blindness.  It’s an attitude that looks to make systems more efficient.  Maybe Google believes there is little real threat to the creation of complex original content. Maybe it doesn’t care. But it should: because the less funding there is for original content, the less there will be for the rest of us to curate.

I believe in Google’s social idealism. I’m very impressed by its innovative company culture. But I’m also convinced by this book that there’s something missing in its mission – something of a reckless approach to what others create.  I thought the tension was summed up well by a key insider, Google’s Eliot Schrage: “One can make the argument that the genes of technological innovation are frequently in conflict with emotional intelligence. Successful technological innovation is all about disruption. Effective emotional intelligence is all about collaboration, how you get talented people to work together and enjoy it.

WHY GIVE UP THE FREE LUNCH?

One of Auletta’s core conclusions is this : “the central question that will profoundly shape the future of old and new media is: will users who have grown up with the Web pay for content they now get free?”  

He quotes Chris Anderson from the book appropriately titled “Free” (reviewed here http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/07/06/090706crbo_books_gladwell by Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell ) that this is “the biggest company in history built on giving things away.” And he quotes Stanford’s John Hennessy saying, “we made one really big mistake in the Internet which is hard to reverse now. We should have made a micro payment system work.”

But the genie is out of the bottle. We all like our free lunch. Nearly all our information on the Internet is free. Auletta offers some possible answers, like micropayments, like subscriptions, like erecting firewalls around the choicest contents. But it seems to me that there are obvious holes in every one.  If for example, we somehow persuade all the most visited news websites to switch to a system of micropayments, we automatically disenfranchise much of the developing world, for which even pennies are too high a price.  If we seek subscriptions, or erect firewalls, it’s all too easy for consumers to break the honour code, to download and disseminate for wider  free consumption.

WHO SURVIVES?

Auletta says he asked Larry Page in March 2008 how he would save newspapers. “I don’t know how to do it, or I would” he said. “Or at least try to help”.

I think I’m more of an optimist about a hybrid future – and I’m trying to spend this year at Harvard at least sketching out some possibilities.  But the way Auletta writes it, traditional media simply doesn’t have much of a future.

Here’s what he says. “Ultimately the challenge for old media is to jump off a bridge without knowing whether there is a net below.” Thanks, Ken.

DOES GOOGLE SURVIVE?

Just one more footnote. One of the most memorable lines in the book comes early on, as Auletta recalls interviewing Bill Gates back in 1998, the year that Google was born. “Which challenge do you most fear?” he asked. There was a pause. “I fear someone in a garage who is devising something completely new”.

Google is a giant. But it’s not new, and it exists in a world where nothing’s guaranteed to last forever.

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Is this the end of the world as we know it?

  1. Hey Philippa,

    I’m impressed at your blogging output! I, too, have reviewed Googled, but not when trying to keep up with coursework. Here’s a link to my review: Google’s Earth

  2. Hi Michael, will read it! Thanks!

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