Monday, November 09, 2009


Waiting for the next round of Google/AAP/AG settlement prose (which was due today, November 9, but has been moved back to Friday, November 13, when the parties will presumably present it to the judge), I have read Ken Auletta's book "Googled: the end of the world as we know it." It's mainly a business book, and primarily about media and advertising. I can sum up what it says about Google in three statements:
  1. Engineering can fix anything
  2. Information is neutral and measurable
  3. Advertising is information
OK, maybe that's a bit overly concise, but that is what it boils down to. I've often wondered how your motto can be "Don't be evil" when you are in the advertising business. It obviously works if you consider information to only have meaning based on numerical measures, and that advertising is just another kind of information. This engineer-based mentality as the guiding principle of the largest, richest advertising company in the world falls somewhere between Ayn Rand's objectivism and Bernie Maddoff's ponzi scheme. About 50% of Google's employees are engineers, and engineers, on average, earn twice what non-engineers earn.

Google has ramped up the advertising game by orders of magnitude, destabilizing huge, long-lived media companies, and it's all based on... winners win. Google sees its role as matching up users with things they are seeking, whether it's web sites, books, or a place to buy sneakers. It doesn't matter to Google what the information is.

There is something creepy about the way that Auletta refers to SergeyandLarry as "the founders." It sounds almost... cult-like. The fact that the book treats the founders and CEO Eric Schmidt as a three-some is just way too trinitarian for my taste.


Anonymous said...

I heard an author interview on Fresh Air and wasn't really impressed. The author did a poor job explaining "Cloud Computing" and Google's role in it (saying that anything stored on a server was a form of cloud computing). He also messed up some facts on the Google Book Search settlement (like that the settlement hasn't been approved by the court). Given the interview, I'm not sure I'd get much out of the book...

Karen Coyle said...

As I said: "It's mainly a business book, and primarily about media and advertising." It's not about the technology, it's about why their business has been a success. And it's clear that most of the book was written before 2008, so the book settlement gets only passing mention (and you're right, he gets some stuff wrong). The author is known for his analyses of media and media trends, mainly TV and newspapers. This book really should be in the "sociology" section, but then an awful lot of business is sociology.

Believe me, after reading this I now see that Google is much more powerful than I imagined. And even more frightening.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Karen. The book is certainly getting a lot of buzz. I'll take a look at it with different eyes and expectations.

Eric said...

As an engineer, I find your placement of the mentality of engineers in a pantheon where the only other gods are Bernie Madoff and Ayn Rand to be profoundly offensive. It's like saying the librarian mentality is somewhere between that of Mao Zedung and Charles Manson.

Ok, that's off my chest, no need to take that any further. The real question is: are there any better ways to run a business?

Karen Coyle said...

Eric, it's not my placement, it's how it's described in the book -- and I should have made that more clear. Auletta emphasizes the non-human aspect of the Google culture, and the "founders" call it "engineering." Their definition of that (acc. to Auletta, who spent much time at Google) is that everything is decided with numbers, and numbers never lie. There is no concept that there might be anything beyond numbers that could lead to any decisions. And by their definition, if the numbers are "right" then it isn't evil. So the fact that Google Books might destroy libraries isn't an issue, because Google will show with its numbers that people are flocking to books online even if they have to pay for them. What it won't show, of course, is how many people have no access because they have no money. Yes, there will be more use, but "socially equitable" isn't a factor in their formula. It's a bleak view of the world, and basically offensive to all of us.

Better ways to run a business? If your goal is more $$, regardless of the social impact, no. If your goal is something like: make some money so you can invest in new, exciting authors, as used to be the case in the book business, then, yes. I prefer the idea that companies take responsibility for their actions. My fear is that the business environment of today doesn't allow you to do that and survive as a business.

Eric said...

Thanks for clarification; I was worried there. I can see the lines between the numbers are truth philosophy and Rand's Objectivism, but how does Bernie get in there?

Karen Coyle said...

Ah, Bernie is related to advertising. The selling of ... nothing, and the selling of nothing leading to more people wanting to sell their nothing. I am very worried about the degree to which we depend on advertising dollars to fund all of our media, since I think that the world of advertising, like Bernie's Ponzi scheme, may be a castle built in the air.

What the book shows is that Google claims to have 'rationalized' the process of advertising because they can show which ads work. For the first time, advertisers actually know how many people are responding to their ads (which they didn't in the analog world -- they actually didn't know if an ad was effective or not, in most cases). Unfortunately, the definition of advertising "working" isn't clear. On this I recommend Michael Schudson's book, Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion. (It's from 1986, and I'd love to find an updated, similar analysis.) Google ads seem to be about connecting up a user who wants shoes to a shoe store. Advertising in, say, Vogue or the New Yorker appears to have an entirely different function. Google is running a locator service, and calling it advertising. (This is my interpretation, not Auletta's.) The Tiffany's ads in the New Yorker and the jeans ads in fashion magazine (where you hardly see the item of clothing at all) have nothing to do with helping a person find the nearest store or the best price. Those ads, according to Schudson, are more about defining our culture, and defining the business of business. Why would Cisco advertise its servers on TV? (Which it did, BTW) Why does Tiffany have an ad in the New York Times even though most readers will never set foot in the store, and many customers don't read a newspaper? The answer is complex, but again: Schudson.

The effect of some types of advertising moving to Google is that TV, newspapers, magazines are losing a portion of their revenue, and the more ethereal advertising of Tiffany and designer jeans isn't enough to keep them running. So these "old media" are dying. Are they really "old"? I don't think so. I think they are less informational, more cultural, and very much needed today. Calling them "old" is insulting. What they are is a culture that has different values. It's not a technology question at all. But if we lose those media, we also lose a part of our culture, one that may be much less rational than the Google culture; one that wastes its money paying artists for images and poets for poems, and occasionally turns out a culturally important bit of entertainment.

Whew! Thanks for asking -- I really hadn't thought this far into it before.