Randall Stross’s “Planet Google,” Reviewed

Building the Mind of God

The Limits and Dangers of Google’s Ambition to Know Everything

A review of Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know, by Randall Stross. Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, January 11, 2009.

By Julian Dibbell

In the annals of what cultural historians like to call “the technological sublime” – that enduring rhetoric of near-religious awe that has attended every major modern invention from the steam engine to the atom bomb – few technologies have arrived as fully fitted for the language of cosmic grandeur as Google. “The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin once said, and why shouldn’t he? Taken literally, Google’s corporate mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” has never been a modest one, and Google takes it very literally indeed. Beyond the already remarkable capacity to sift in an instant through the Web’s billions of pages, Google projects in various stages of development propose a future in which it will be possible to search online through, for example, every single book now in print, every DNA base pair in your personal genome, and every nook, cranny, sofa cushion, and other possible location of the car keys gone missing in your living room. The final goal is nothing less than digital omniscience for all, which helps explain, perhaps, the straight face with which Google CEO Eric Schmidt has suggested it will take the company an epic 300 years to get there.

The scope of Google’s aims isn’t news, however – nor is the magnitude of its profits. What we need with yet another business book about the search-engine giant, therefore, is a fair question, and it’s one that Randall Stross’s “Planet Google” fairly answers. An early round of Google books – John Battelle’s “The Search,” David Vise and Mark Malseed’s “The Google Story” – followed hard on the heels of the company’s spectacular IPO in 2004 and largely treated it with the star-struck good will its triumphant yet conspicuously benign new business model had earned it hitherto. (“Don’t be evil” was the grand, much-quoted Google motto, though simply keeping its search pages free of banner ads had probably done more to win the hearts of Web surfers worldwide). But four years later, the downsides – and the dark side – of Google’s corporate ethos have begun to show through, and Stross has done us the well-timed favor of compiling them for review.

From privacy risks to environmental concerns to the obvious market-power worries raised by any de facto monopoly (Google controls some 60 percent of the online search market, compared with 20 percent for number-two Yahoo!), the emerging troubles with Google make for what may seem at first a motley list. But behind them all lies the single, vast ambition – to know all – that has defined Google from inception and spurred its unyielding growth. In what is perhaps the book’s most telling detail, Stross reveals that among Google staffers the phrase “at very, very large scale” has grown so common that it’s now abbreviated simply to “at scale.” And it is the processing of information “at scale” that has led, for instance, to Google’s investment in a worldwide network of computer “server farms” so massive that its electric-power consumption has put it on the environmentalist radar as a potential threat to the planet.

Likewise, it is Google’s in-born imperative to amass any and all forms of information that has led it beyond the safe waters of publicly available Web sites into more riskily intimate data such as email (Gmail users’ correspondence resides indefinitely on Google’s servers, accessible not only to the company’s great engines of “semantic analytics” but, potentially, to third-party snoops both government-authorised and otherwise) and street-watching cam shots (the Google Maps “Street View” feature caused some alarm early on when random Californians’ exposed thongs, illicit indiscretions, and home interiors were accidentally captured and made searchable worldwide). And even when the company now ventures into realms ostensibly as public as the Web, the sheer scale of its single-handed grasp can raise hackles, as Google learned soon after it announced its Alexandrian intention to create a searchable index of the planet’s entire book collection: What might have been relatively inoffensive if undertaken by an individual or, say, a nonprofit consortium of libraries, became in Google’s hands so naked an information-age power play that publishers’ lawsuits kept it hobbled until their settlement just last month.

Not that any of these developments, in themselves, threaten Google’s status as the premier object of contemporary technology worship – on the contrary, philosophers of the sublime, technological and otherwise, have long recognized that its power rests fundamentally in the basic human dread of forces beyond our control. Interestingly, however, what does threaten ultimately to diminish Google’s awe-inspiring aura is the same audacious reach that has always endowed it. As Stross makes clear – and it is finally his most useful contribution to the ongoing record of Google’s so-far brilliant career – the company’s monolithic pursuit of all-knowingness is already hitting a hard limit: Knowledge itself is not monolithic, and even assuming that it can all eventually be digitized, not all digital information can be organized and profited from in the same way Google has so effectively organized and profited from Web pages. Google’s famous US$1.65bn acquisition of YouTube, for example, may have been a necessary step toward fitting video into its master plan, but there is as yet no sign Google’s even close to working out how to make money from it. As for the powerful knowledge locked up in social networks, Google’s attempts to get a handle on that have lagged far beyond those of the Facebook empire its search engines cannot penetrate.

Whether Google’s engineers will in the end manage to build the mind of God remains an open question – three centuries is a long time, after all. But what’s plain by now is that they’re likeliest to succeed only if they first understand how much likelier they are to fail.

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