Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Google & The Space Merchants


Recently I reread a science fiction novel published in 1953. It satirizes the advertising industry by imagining such grotesqueries as the marketing of cigarettes for children (Kiddiebut) and a coffee product (Coffiest) adulterated with a habit-forming alkaloid.

It was first serialized in a pulp magazine under the title Gravy Planet. One of the co-authors, Frederik Pohl, described in a memoir (The Way the Future Was) the difficulty of getting it published in book form. He was told by a friend and editor:

"Fred, look. I don't know how to tell you this, but it's no good. There are a couple of good ideas, sure. But you don't know how to handle them. What you need is some good professional writer to pull the whole thing together."

Eventually the book found a publisher and is now considered a classic. It's still in print, and according to Pohl has been published in 25 languages. Due to the clunky plot, however, I tend to agree with Pohl's friend, but there is one bit that has stayed with me ever since I first read it, the part where an advertising executive refers to "safety cranks" stopping them from projecting "messages on aircar windows," and mentions "a system that projects direct on the retina of the eye."

I was thinking about this as I read Steven Levy's book about Google. We don't have aircars yet, but will Google be able to resist projecting their search engine results onto the windows of their driverless vehicles? And as far as directing them onto a person's retina, is that not what Google Glass does?

In the Plex

The book was published in 2011 (before the development of the two products mentioned above), and the title comes from the name of Google's headquarters, Googleplex, in Mountain View, California. I'll skip over the development of the search engine and the incredible wealth it's generated by monetizing searches, other than to give a quote that provides historical perspective:

Though the Internet was different from other media, most Internet companies were still selling ads the way Madison Avenue had always done it. Google saw the entire exchange differently. Advertising in Google was less comparable to television or print than it was to computer dating.

An interesting part of Google's success is its vertical integration. It is the world's largest manufacturer of computers and owns "more fibre than anyone else on the planet." Google's hunger for data is due to the constant need to feed its search engine and provide expanding markets to its advertisers. The ultimate goal is "organizing all the information in the world."

Parts that I found especially interesting:

  • the setting up data centres in Brussels and Oregon
  • the development of Gmail, Chrome, and Android
  • the gobbling up of other companies including Blogger, Picasa, and Youtube ("after Google itself...the most popular search engine in the world")
  • clashes with Apple and Microsoft
  • the competitive threat posed by Facebook
  • an entire chapter on Google's failed expansion into China
  • the fiasco resulting from Google's attempt to digitize every book in existence

Google faced privacy concerns over its storing of searches and emails belonging to people with Gmail accounts. Even more alarming was its acquisition of DoubleClick, an ad network that "radically broadened the scope of the information Google collected about everyone's browsing activity."

Using DoubleClick in conjunction with its own search engine gave Google "an omniscient cookie" that "provided a potentially voluminous amount of information about its users and their interests, virtually all of it compiled by stealth."

There is much to admire in a firm whose unofficial motto is "Don't Be Evil," and in the unconventional business practices of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. (For example, doors set on sawhorses serve as desks.) Yet it could also be argued that Google has more than a passing resemblance to the advertising agencies in The Space Merchants.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Google is stalking me, which is why I've stopped using it.