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by Evelyn Renold, AARP The Magazine, November 30, 2009
The subtitle is neither paranoid nor hyperbolic. The digital wave has swamped old media, changing the way we listen to music, watch TV, shop, talk, socialize, read books, and absorb the news. Media writer Ken Auletta tells the story of this upheaval through the prism of a single company: Google. "Nowhere," he declares, "will we find another company that has spread so swiftly across the media horizon."
Nor, he might have added, so aggressively.
Anchored by its powerhouse Internet search engine, Google has moved in many directions. It now owns the ubiquitous YouTube and the influential digital-marketing firm DoubleClick. In the past month alone, it has acquired the mobile-ad company AdMob, struck up a partnership with Twitter, and introduced a free GPS for mobile phones via its new proprietary device, the Android 2.0. Google aggregates, or pulls from, some 25,000 news sites every day and aspires to digitize every book ever written. It has "googled"—by which Auletta means "disrupted"—entire industries. And it is still on a tear.
One of the best things about Googled is the skill with which it maps the digital universe, charting the company's relationships with friends, enemies, and frenemies. The latter abound: we learn how Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos became the secret fourth investor in the Google start-up—and why he is becoming a competitor. We hear why Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google's brash young founders, fell out with Apple's Steve Jobs (a former ally), and why Mark Zuckerberg's social-networking site, Facebook, poses a real threat to Google's continued success.
The book is also a window into the 11-year-old company, which went public only in 2004. The über-connected Auletta—who writes the "Annals of Communication" column for The New Yorker—scored a fair amount of face time with the company's founders and even more with its CEO and resident grownup, 54-year-old Eric Schmidt. The trio's contributions, however, are less than revealing. Brin in particular, Auletta reports, is uncomfortable with introspection; he had to be coaxed into answering even a softball question about his parents. In fact the entire company can be "opaque and insular," the author writes, with employees loath to divulge the slightest detail. As a result, Auletta relies on outsiders—including himself—to provide insight and perspective.
Page and Brin met at Stanford as computer-besotted grad students. Sharing "a penchant for pushing boundaries," they once snuck onto a Stanford loading dock and "borrowed" some brand-new computers. The pair built their embryonic search engine in a Silicon Valley garage in 1997. Google (the company) soon followed. Auletta lauds the founders' innovative spirit, their sharp focus on user needs, and their conviction that digital companies must first invent content that people want, then give it away for free, and only then figure out how to make money from it.
Google's original search engine was not the first, but it had a unique feature: the ability to organize results based on which websites users sought out most often. The company, writes Auletta, "relied on the collective intelligence of its users… [and] the 'wisdom of crowds.' " That paved the path for other web companies to follow.
The author is smart about the "disconnect between the way Google is often perceived and the way it perceives itself." Early on, the founders settled on "Don't be evil" as a company slogan, and they plainly believe they have done a lot of good. At Google and many other new-media companies, Auletta points out, the engineer is king, further alienating old-media types who don't speak the same language.
Juicy tidbits crop up here and there about Google's private chefs and private planes, the unique perks of working at the Googleplex—as the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, are known—and the stock options that enriched many of its employees. (Google solved the problem of how to make money from its search engine by introducing automated, charge-by-the-click text ads.)
Yet the liveliest material comes from elsewhere. Barry Diller, former head of Paramount Pictures and Fox Inc. (and now an e-commerce executive), recalls an early meeting with the founders during which Larry Page had his head buried in his PDA. Diller called him on it:
"I said to Larry, 'Is this boring?' "
"No, I'm interested. I always do this," said Page.
"Well, you can't do this," said Diller. "Choose."
"I'll do this," said Page matter-of-factly. He never lifted his eyes from the handheld device, forcing Diller to address his remarks to Brin.
Auletta is not a particularly artful writer, and when he tries to colorize his account—describing, for example, the physical appearance of some of his key figures—it can be awkward. What's more, the book is riddled with unintended repetitions, though that may stem from the author's bid to make his work as timely as possible by including late-breaking news.
In the end, Auletta is more than fair in totting up Google's successes and failures. (The latter include a public-relations disaster in China, where the founders agreed to exclude from their search engine any news that the Chinese government deemed to be politically objectionable.) He pointedly notes that Google "creates jobs" as well as destroys them. And his assessment of the company's challenges and vulnerabilities seems astute: "Google juggles nuclear issues—privacy, concentration of power, copyright—that could explode at any moment."
Yet who would want to bet against Google now? Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Ken Auletta has written this thoughtful, even-handed report using a "media platform"—in other words, a book—that may wind up "googled," too.
Evelyn Renold is an editor and writer who lives in New York City.
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