The New Yorker’s “Annals of Communication” columnist Auletta (Media Man: Ted Turner’s Improbably Empire, 2004, etc.) goes behind the digital revolution to detail the past decade of astonishing growth at Google.
The greatest fear of Microsoft’s Bill Gates—“someone in a garage who is devising something completely new”—was realized in Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who parlayed their breakthrough search engine into an all-purpose threat to newspapers, books, television, movies, phones, advertising and even Microsoft. Page and Brin believe that their enlightened business practice of putting end users first reflects the firm’s motto, “Don’t be evil.” Their tendency as engineers—to dismiss what cannot be objectively measured—has helped them undercut traditional advertising firms incapable of pinpointing the effectiveness of campaigns. It has also left them sometimes so hilariously deficient in emotional intelligence that, Auletta writes, they “naively believe that most mysteries, including the mysteries of human behavior, are unlocked with data.” CEO Eric Schmidt has balanced their desire to move nimbly against the larger world’s fears about privacy, copyright and antitrust issues. In a high-tech, high-wire act, Google has combined in-house initiatives and daring acquisitions, producing one innovation after another and aiming to become a $100 billion media company (more than twice the size of Time Warner, the Walt Disney Co. or News Corp.)—and battling legal moves from alarmed old-media rivals. While praising its innovations, Auletta criticizes the company for not living up to its ideals in, for instance, China, where it agreed to censor sites to assure access in the authoritarian-controlled nation.
Though not a vivid stylist, Auletta uncovers some endlessly colorful material and assesses its prospects critically but fairly—Google will thrive, he thinks, but they’d better guard against naïveté and complacency.