The Google Monster

Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize
Everything We Know

By Randall Stross
Free Press, 275 pages, $26

First I must confess: I am a Google junkie. Like most info-hungry New Yorkers, I spend an unreasonable amount of time searching for things on the Internet, from breaking news to videos of hugging lions. Using any other search engine would seem absurd. But while reading Randall Stross’ book Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know, I became uncomfortable with how much Google knew about me and how much I had been relying on it. A self-imposed rehab seemed to be the only solution. I blocked the Google home page on my work and home computers and rerouted my e-mails from my Gmail account. I felt prepared, determined, even inspired!

I lasted about eight hours.

The problem is that Google isn’t just a search engine. It’s a way of life. Google’s logo is colored in those friendly, primary-crayon-colored shades that you used in kindergarten to draw pictures of your sunny future. Searching with Google can take you anywhere in the world. But the company’s other services can also take you home.

Most of my personal communication with friends, family and work colleagues is through some kind of Google service. I e-mail with Gmail and use Gchat. Google Calendar keeps track of my appointments, interviews and workouts. Their Microsoft Office-like Google Docs software is useful for work (I’m using the service as I type this review). Google Maps and Google Earth provide accurate directions and cool snapshots of my childhood home in Massachusetts. And that’s just a few of the dozens of services Google offers.

Google has come under scrutiny for possessing too much of our personal information these days. Their motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” seems like a mockery, much like Wal-Mart’s former smiley face logo, which laughed at us for giving in to its corporate plan for cheap prices. Google understands that we come to them for convenience and efficiency. And any company with that much stuff on us has to be evil in some way, right?

“Every age—coal, steel, oil—has a raw material that defines its historical moment,” Mr. Stross writes in the introduction to his book. “In ours it is information, and Google has become its preeminent steward.”

 

MR. STROSS, THE TIMES’ Digital Domain columnist, has published his book to coincide with Google’s 10th anniversary this month. Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin incorporated Google—named after googol, the term for 1 followed by 100 zeros—on Sept. 7, 1998. And this book offers an exhaustive history of Google’s 10-year pursuit of its ultimate goal: to organize the world’s information.

Mr. Stross not only helps us understand the Google point of view, he also offers helpful history lessons on the competition, like Facebook. Google has launched about 100 products and services, from shopping guides to spreadsheets. It has also gobbled up around 50 companies—some to run on their own, like YouTube, and others to work into other projects, like Keyhole, a start-up that eventually built Google Earth.

Mr. Stross explained that Google’s goal is to feed information to the company’s servers like they are some kind of famished beasts: “It has reached out to claim as many books as it can get hold of, as many videos as its users would like to submit, as many different kinds of maps as can be overlaid upon the earth and the sky, and as many of the documents that computer users routinely create for home, office, and school.” And no one can get in Google’s way.

Mr. Stross is sure to keep readers from going cross-eyed with numbers and geek-speak by telling lots of stories about the people behind the projects. But there are already excellent books about Google, including David Vise and Mark Malseed’s The Google Story, which they are rereleasing for the company’s 10th anniversary on Sept. 23 with Delacorte Press. Planet Google’s jacket hyped Mr. Stross’ “unprecedented access” to the Googleplex in particular. He was allowed into one of their “TGIF” staff meetings. But Google obviously kept their cards close while he was around, and so in the end, there’s nothing in there we couldn’t find in other articles.

Mr. Stross provides an excellent roundup of Google’s accomplishments so far. But he’s written about a company that is still at the top of its game, which is, frankly, kind of a boring time. There’s already been more news about Google that he wasn’t able to include in his book, like their new browser, Google Chrome; their Android-powered phone; and a new advertising venture with NBC, not to mention taking their server and data storage out to sea! We hope he goes back to Google when the company takes some kind of financial nose dive and faces its first major failure. Now that’s something we’d like to read about.

Gillian Reagan covers new media and culture for The Observer. She can be reached at greagan@observer.com

The Google Monster