The ambition of the Google founders’ mission — “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — is exceeded in scope only by the profound impact they have had on our world: on how we think, interact, manage and govern
There is probably no more critical biographical data about Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin than their dates of birth — 1972 and 1973. Had they been born 15 years earlier, they’d have arrived in the Microsoft age of computers, and users who were barely connected. Had they arrived 15 years later, someone else would already have figured out how to make sense of the internet. Brin and Page came just in time to bring their key insight to the critical problem created by the internet: search and discovery — or, in the words of New York University’s Professor Clay Shirky, “filter failure”.
At the advent of the web, Yahoo quaintly believed it could use editors to catalogue all the content online, but quickly learned that that wouldn’t scale, as we say these days. Google’s founders realised they had to automate the task algorithmically, and they made a profoundly democratic decision to do that by listening to us, to our clicks and links, to find relevance. Page and Brin are engineers — both PhD candidates in computer science who suspended their studies at Stanford to start Google — and so they approached the opportunity as scientists: first, find a problem and then seek solutions in data. That is how they run their company. Employees are told never to approach them without the data to support a recommendation. Indeed, Brin and Page have made life for all of us more fact—based. Recall our habits before the search engine. How many questions were worth a trip to the library? Now, we expect answers on any subject — any need, curiosity, or conversation — in 0.3 seconds. The ambition of the Google founders’ mission — “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — is exceeded in scope only by the profound impact they have had on our world: on how we think, interact, manage and govern; on media, retail, education and the economy.
Changing the laws of media
Media was the first industry to feel Google’s impact because it is closest to the internet (both serve information and entertainment) and because the business model Google stumbled upon happens to be media’s lifeblood: advertising. Page and Brin also changed the laws of media by giving birth to the link economy, which replaces the content economy, in force for 570 years, since Guttenberg. In the link economy, value is made not only by those who create content but also by those who create a public for it: the aggregators and curators, such as Google itself, whom Rupert Murdoch and his team label as “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs”, and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet”. They refuse to understand that Google’s links are gifts. But just as the media have suffered trying to adapt to the Google age, so will almost every industry and sector of society. They must remake themselves for a new reality that Google understands because Page and Brin helped create it. Google demands openness (even though its own algorithms and business deals are opaque). If you want to be found, you must be searchable.
It also rewards specialisation: if you are the best at what you do, you will rise in search results over the mass of commodified mediocrity. That specialisation also creates efficiency. Do what you do best and link to the rest.
Contrary to common perception, Google does not own the world or want to. It only wants to organise it. Old industries and institutions were built around the notion of control and scarcity. Google is founded instead on belief in abundance. It is a platform upon which countless enterprises can succeed, using Google’s content, promotion, functionality, features, and revenue. As models for modern business managers, Brin and Page made their own rules.
They decreed that engineers should spend 20 per cent of their time innovating. They put applicants through a grind of interviews to select those who will fit the culture, who will seek unusual solutions to problems. They release products as betas, which is a remarkable statement of humility and humanity, for it says to customers that this service is unfinished and imperfect; the beta label is necessarily an invitation to collaborate. And, of course, Google’s founders famously issued their edict to do no evil, although they have explained that this is less a commandment from the mountain-top than a licence to employees to question what the company does; to hold Google true to its mission. We can only wish that these words — don’t be evil — had been etched atop the doors of Wall Street and that just a few more people there had felt empowered to question what they saw.
Errors and virtues
Google has its sins and errors: its censorship of search results in China; its often hypocritical opaqueness; its occasional failure to recognise its own size and power — no matter how benevolent — as in its book scanning. And it has its virtues: Page and Brin devote 1 per cent of the company’s equity and profits to philanthropic causes, including clean and cheap power (which will also benefit power—hungry Google’s bottom line).
Some ask whether Page and Brin are one-trick ponies (well, two tricks: search and advertising). Others wonder whether Google might lose battles for the social web to Facebook, the live web to Twitter, and the mobile web to Apple. Don’t bet against them. To understand the power of Brin’s and Page’s focus, go to Google’s home page now and type “weather in Ed” and stop there. Google will not only understand you want weather in Edinburgh but will give you the forecast right there in the search box; it will answer your question before you’ve even asked it. Google’s true holy grail is understanding, anticipating, and serving our intent.
When we’re using Google devices with Google operating systems and Google browsers and Google software to ask Google questions in text or voice or even pictures and Google gives us each the personal answers we need from any source — no, the best source — in the world, in the context of the moment and our needs, that will be the culmination of the Google age. Google’s next frontier is not to organise the world’s information, but our lives.
This article is part of the Guardian News & Media’s series: Icons of the decade