Algorithm & Blues

Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The underdog-to-overlord rise of Google is, along with Bill Gates’s oversize glasses and Steve Jobs’s devil beard, by now firmly entrenched in the canon of American tech mythology. The company was founded ten years ago, in a dorm room, by two 25-year-old Stanford computer dorks obsessed with a freshly brewing info crisis: The Web was metastasizing at such an exponentially nuclear rate that the dominant search engines of the day (Yahoo et al., which depended on actual humans curating results) found themselves overmatched. Google arrived fully automated, determined never to get outpaced. Its algorithm—an ingenious secret formula that ranked Websites’ authority based recursively on how many links they got from other well-linked sites—was designed to actually get smarter as it processed more information. (The company invested such total faith in the algorithm’s impartial wisdom that, even when the search for “Jew” called up an anti-Semitic site, Google refused to intervene.) In just a few years, Google went from begging for spare computers at a Stanford loading dock to being the undisputed dominatrix of world information. It won Web search so thoroughly its name became synonymous with it. By 2008, it handled 68 percent of U.S. Internet searches, compared with Yahoo’s 20 percent.

Google’s original mission statement was, in retrospect, a masterpiece of bland modesty: “To make it easier to find high-quality information on the Web.” This would be the rough equivalent of Napoleon Bonaparte’s declaring, in 1783, that his goal was “to hold some kind of public office in France.” Before long, the company updated its mission to reflect an almost pathological ambition: to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Under that banner, Google has morphed from the Web’s dominant search engine into an over-the-top Enlightenment-style fantasy of total knowledge—a 21st-century analogue to Diderot’s Encyclopédie. At the heart of the enterprise is a radically expansive notion of information. Google wants to digitize everything that its algorithms might possibly one day be able to analyze, and its data-collection methods are endlessly creative. (It recently set up a free voice-activated information hotline, 800-GOOG-411, that will give you phone numbers for local businesses while it harvests your phonemes for future research.) Google’s CEO estimated that only 2 to 3 percent of the world’s information has been converted to searchable form; he guessed that it will take 300 years to finish the job. Its founders have said they see Web search as a form of artificial intelligence, and that they’d like Google to achieve the rationalizing power of 2001’s hal—although “hopefully,” added Sergey Brin, “it would never have a bug like hal did where he killed the occupants of the spaceship.” As Stross puts it, “The ultimate goal is to provide Google’s software with enough personal detail about each of its visitors that it could provide customized answers to the questions ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ ” Google, in other words, would very much like to digitize your soul.

Stross, a business professor and New York Times columnist, tells the epic info-opera of Google simply and swiftly. He provides elegant microhistories of familiar subjects (the Internet, YouTube) and sprinkles just about every page with unexpected tech facts—including, most fascinatingly, the story of Google’s data centers: dozens of mysterious energy-sucking warehouses filled with up to a million computers humming along in the dark to minimize heat buildup.

Stross is a little soft, however, on the potential danger of Google. Although it has done a plausible job so far of living up to its unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” the company’s info-hoarding has lured it into worrisome territory: medical records (Google Health), online-purchase histories (Google Checkout), recordings of phone conversations (GrandCentral), and even genomics (23andMe). It has come into conflict with, and tried to copy (or buy), every other major Web entity: Microsoft, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube. Its camera vans and low-flying surveillance planes have publicly outed nude sunbathers, nose-pickers, and strip-club patrons. It has worked with censors in China. It has seemed to disregard copyright law in its quest to digitize all the world’s books. It requires its software users to sign over permission to “reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit.” (I keep trying to imagine a public performance of my Gmail in-box.) Infinite information is, very obviously, not the same as infinite wisdom. When you operate on such a massive scale, even the most minor issues become huge—every questionable judgment, every little risk, operates at scale as well.

Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know
By Randall Stross. Free Press. $26.

Algorithm & Blues