Search Lite

John Battelle adds an important volume to the history of the Silicon Valley by documenting the development of Google. Like those before him, he has approached an obscure and intangible subject which affects the way nearly everyone lives, works, and loves. Battelle has done the long-term reporting required to give The Search the social and technological context of our time as well as a decent insight into Google founders (Wunderkinder Sergey Brin and Larry Page) and their motivations.

Battelle, who was the co-founder of Wired and former publisher of The Industry Standard magazines, is in a unique position to do this reporting. (Full disclosure: I know Battelle slightly.) He is personally passionate about where technology is taking us and how it is taking us there. And his passion was clearly what got him a book contract to write about something that most of us take for granted–the ability to type a few words into a small white box with a blinking cursor and expect to get relevant and interesting information. And to do this free, globally, and instantaneously.

We have seen this in-depth treatment of technologies in the past with the development of computing (e.g., The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder), gaming, software, the Internet… the list is endless. The value of these books seems to be greater as historical documents and business case studies than as dynamic reads for the average electronics consumer.

This class of book will be good reading for those who want to know that “search” of any form is composed of three specific functions: crawl, index, and serve. For search to work, it must “crawl” the web and find unique and connected data, it must then index that data in retrievable and presentable form, and it must serve that data in a simple, fast, and relevant fashion to he who seeks. To do this, Google has more than 175,000 computers, or as Battelle puts it, “more computers than existed on Earth in the 1970s!”

As with most new products there are “early adopters”–consumers who are fascinated by the technology and its promise and are willing to deal with the bugs, workarounds, and general imperfections–and there are “mass market” consumers–who expect the damn stuff to just work. They could not care less about the underlying code and hardware that makes it all function. For those who want to know no more about automobiles than where the key goes, this is not their book. For those who are interested in the electrical system, the internal combustion engine, and the changes in land planning and social structures as a result of the automobile, this is the book to pick up. Oh, and if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who purchased Google stock at its IPO and have watched shares rocket from just over $100 to over $300, chances are you will enjoy reading about how smart and savvy you are. Battelle lets you know that Google is the holy grail of modern computing and that it has currently only reached about five percent of its potential.

The remaining 95 percent is made up of things that only futuristic Star Trek computers can do. The kind of computing power that understands natural language and instructions and is able to deliver the most individually relevant information that is spatially and temporally appropriate and is based on previous collected and analyzed patterns of thought and behavior. No longer will you have to type in Google-speak (“Hemingway Spain Wine” or “Rove WMD Liar”) to get a glimpse of an answer; as the technology evolves, it will have watched your every click, logged your every move, followed each of your queries, and developed its native sense of who you are, what you like, how you recreate, where you live, and when you are awake and it will do so with every little bit of technology that has a chip in it, whether your cell phone, your computer, your automobile (do you have On-Star?). As I write this, the thought of such ubiquitous computing and infinite knowledge of me becomes terrifying. Yes, it is the type of technology that arouses DoD’s former information awareness czar John Poindexter. Privacy becomes ever more vincible and the Google corporate value “Don’t be Evil” becomes more important, though more of a guideline than a regulable FCC standard.

Battelle refers to the search and Google as having come up with a “Database of Intentions,” a phrase he has coined to summarize how Google’s technology culls its worldwide usage to create a database of the “wants, needs, fears, and obsessions of humankind.” Google has become the world’s largest polling machine. While marketers use polling and consumer testing to see if “New Coke” is a better brand or political pollsters push to find out attitudes towards handguns, Google is able to summarize the real time concerns and interests of the mass of online mankind–whether Janet Jackson video footage, the latest Coldplay music release, or the next draft of the Iraqi constitution. It can collect this information and slice and dice it in myriad ways. Oops, there goes another flash of a smiling Poindexter.

While there are marketers and political operatives who are smacking their chops at the potential of such voluntarily given information, there are also entire authoritarian political structures that live in fear of the their populace having absolute access to free, independent, and open information. Search appropriately looks at this issue in a chapter titled “Search, Privacy, Government, and Evil” and concludes with a study of Google in China. Battelle notes that Google, the company, understands the business opportunity of operating in China, but that what Google, the search engine, does is provide a direct path to information that government opponents can use and propagate. Falun Gong, for example, is something the Chinese government wants to block. How Google tries to finesse this and still stay true to its corporate value of “Don’t Be Evil” is an interesting dilemma that corporate leaders are unable to solve adequately.

One bit of advice that Battelle delivers is worth excerpting for those who do not wish to read through the entire book. It is something that many of us already do; if not, here goes:

“It’s a good idea to check your name on Google, early and often. Given that just about everyone else you meet will be doing it anyway, it’s just smart to get a picture of who you are in the world according to the index. In the Google age, every new relationship begins with a Google search.” You have been warned.

Markos Kounalakis is The Washington Monthly‘s publisher. He chronicled the development of the first PDA by Apple Computer in his book Defying Gravity:The Making of Newton.

Markos Kounalakis is The Washington Monthly‘s publisher. He chronicled the development of the first PDA by Apple Computer in his book Defying Gravity:The Making of Newton.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.