by John Arlidge
October 21, 2007
from TimesOnLine Website
In the blissed-out California sunshine, the glistening glass-and-steel curves of the Googleplex seem to sweep you up off the pavement with the promise of a glimpse into the future – and a good time.
It is 8am on a Monday morning and battalions of high-tech foot soldiers arrive at the gilded palace of the online revolution. Laptops and lattes in hand, they step off conga lines of biodiesel-powered buses, chatting loud and fast about the latest skyrocketing Silicon Valley start-ups, which have names that sound like Teletubbies: Jajah, Orgoo, Ningo.
Geek by geek, they head inside to begin surfing
and controlling the quadrillions of bytes of information that surge through
Google’s giant servers, and which crash on to our desktops and mobile phones
every minute of every day.
Google likes to think of itself as “crunchy” – wholesome and worthy – and, walking into the Googleplex, it looks, at first sight, a pretty crunchy kind of place. There’s free coffee and muesli in the No Name breakfast cafe. Everyone gets around the campus on free bicycles. In the car park, the canopies that protect the neat ranks of hybrid Toyota Priuses from the sun are made from solar panels that power each building in the 1.5-million-sq-ft complex.
There are swimming pools, massage chairs and
free medical checkups. A model of Sir Richard Branson’s
SpaceShipTwo prototype commercial spacecraft hangs from the rafters in
the lobby. This is rocket science, after all.
She does her best to deflect the wealth issue by wearing flats, a studiously plain grey-black dress, and a $50 plastic watch – a combination that shrieks:
The young, fast-talking blonde is the firm’s poster girl. It’s her job to sell Google’s vision of a connected future.
Her task used to be really, really easy. Google
made cool stuff – the best search engine and some whizzy online services,
such as Gmail, Google’s e-mail system – and handed it out free. We grabbed
it and told all our friends about it, so they grabbed it too. Google became
the most popular internet service in the world. Thanks to its keyword online
advertising system that matches ads with search queries, it generated
billions – £8 billion last year alone.
He declared that the company’s goal was to collect as much personal data as it could on individual users so that it could improve the quality of its search results and even start making recommendations, like a trusted friend.
His comments provoked a firestorm. Right-to-privacy campaigners howled that a machine that knows so much about us that it can tell us what to do would be the biggest-ever threat to personal privacy.
No totalitarian regime, no Bond villain had dreamt up anything so creepy.
You only have to spend a few hours in the
Googleplex, talking to Mayer and fellow Googleytes, to realize that, if
anything, Schmidt was being conservative. Instead of worrying that they are
going too far, Google’s top team talk, with poker faces, about a “300-year
mission” that will eventually see almost everything – including, perhaps,
one day you and me – linked to the web and searchable online.
The first is loosely referred to as “universal search”. Scribbling frantically on a whiteboard, Mayer, Google’s head of search products and user experience, says the web is currently “very limited and primitive”. It consists mainly of words, images and some music, mostly created in the last few years. There is much, much more that could – and should – be online.
At its simplest level, this includes every film,
TV show, video or radio broadcast ever made; every book, academic paper,
pamphlet, government document, map, chart and blog ever published in any
language anywhere; and any piece of music ever recorded. Google is currently
developing new software that will scan millions of new sources of
information to give richer search results.
The results include video news archives, the latest news on the iPhone, highlights of Jobs’s career, and up-do-date news stories.
So far, so uncontroversial – but there’s much more.
Mayer and co argue that to be true to its mission statement of "organizing all the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful", Google should be about more than searching for words, images and music; it should be about finding objects and, eventually, people.
Any item that can be fitted with a radio-frequency identifier – an electronic tag called an RFID – can be linked to the internet over local or national WiFi networks. Retailers already use this technology for stocktaking, and fleet managers track buses and taxis this way.
Why not, asks Mayer, "take the things you care about – your watch, your phone – stick little tags on them and watch for their receiving signals"?
This is not a joke.
And why not go one step further and tag your
partner or your children, so that you can find out where they are whenever
you want? Googleytes point out that we already do this with newborn babies
Google has just launched iGoogle, a new turbocharged version of its regular search service. It allows Google to monitor our search and web-surfing history, so that it can find out:
... anything, in fact, that it can glean from our web-surfing, which, since we do so much online these days, means pretty much everything.
Google wants us to sign up for iGoogle on our PC, and also to install it, along with Gmail, Google Maps and Google Earth software, on our mobile phone, so that it knows not just who we are but where we are in the world, 24 hours a day, thanks to the satellite-positioning chips starting to be included in mobile phones.
The final piece of the Google future is called “cloud computing”.
Instead of using the internet to search for information that we then copy and use to work on documents stored on the hard drives of our computers, using the software on those computers, Google wants us to create all our documents online, to work on them online using Google’s web-based software, and to store them online on Google’s vast global network of servers.
Google has recently launched its own web-based software programs – called Google Apps – that enable us to create password-protected word files and spreadsheets, edit them and store them online.
These applications – along with Gmail, Calendar,
Google’s online diary, Picasa, its picture-management and storage system,
and Presentations, its online version of PowerPoint – mean Google will
provide all our computing and storage needs, not on our PCs but, as Mayer
puts it, “in the computational cloud”.
It wants to know and record where we have been and, thanks to our
search history of airlines, car-hire firms and MapQuest, where we are going
in the future and when.
See "A Race to the Bottom - Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies" in below insert:
Also see "Consultation Report: Race to the Bottom? 2007" - click below image:
Even John Battelle, one of the net’s leading evangelists, who co-founded the technology bible Wired magazine, and wrote The Search, the definitive study of Google’s rise, now says:
It all begs one key question: why?
What makes a
bunch of California geeks who are relaxed enough to spend their lives
creating extraordinary products – and then give them away for nothing –
suddenly want to take over the world, or at least its information?
Ask Craig Silverstein. He knows because he was there at the beginning, when Brin and Page were graduate students messing about with algorithms at Stanford University, California, when they should have been out getting laid.
Silverstein is a man for whom the word “geek” could have been invented. He is young – 34 – thin, has a beard and speaks softly. He does not like to travel more than once a year. He was Google’s first employee and, even though he is now worth £250m, he still turns up to work every day because he “likes solving complex software-engineering problems”.
We meet in another anonymous meeting room with
no windows. For a firm that expects us to tell it everything about
ourselves, Google is remarkably coy about revealing the simplest information
about itself – such as what its executives’ offices look like. Interviews in
the executive suite are banned for fear that journalists might uncover its
He recalls one example that shows that Brin and Page imagined that one day even the smallest “stuff” would be online.
Brin and Page were obsessed with recording, categorizing and indexing anything and everything, and then making it available to anyone with internet access because they genuinely believed – and still do – that it is a morally good thing to do. It may sound hopelessly hippie-ish and wildly hypocritical coming from a couple of guys worth £10 billion each, but Brin and Page insist they are not, and never have been, in it for the money.
They see themselves as latter-day explorers, mapping human knowledge so that others can find trade routes in the new information economy.
Belief in the value of information for its own
sake was behind the firm’s highly controversial decision to cave in to
demands from the Chinese government for censorship so as to break into the
giant local market. Some information, Google reckoned, is better than none.
He’s a good choice. The 30-year-old shaggy, flip-flop-wearing, softly spoken surfer dude could not look less Big Brotherish if he tried.
We meet – shock! – in yet another whitewashed conference room. He makes his pitch by first appealing to my wallet. Cloud computing and data storage are free for personal users. If I sign up, I will never again need to spend hundreds of pounds buying software and zip drives to back up my data. Google will do it all for me.
The vision of a paperless future – where all
documents reside online – sounds tempting. Being tied to a physical PC box
Kamvar illustrates his point with a simple example:
Putting Google on my mobile phone and tracking my movements is also designed to deliver the best search results.
When I search for “new restaurants” on my phone, he tells me, it will automatically put new Italian restaurants at the top in whatever location I find myself – whether it is London or Silicon Valley. It won’t be long, he adds, before Google will tell me when hot new Italian restaurants open in London without my even asking it to.
An early version of Google’s Recommendations
service is currently available in the US and Europe. It will soon be
extended to cover new jobs, activities and even social networking – so that
it can fulfill Schmidt’s dream of telling me what to do tomorrow or which
new job to apply for.
The man who claims to have the answers is Elliot
Schrage. The former member of the US
Council on Foreign Relations wears the
chinos on privacy as Google’s head of global communications and public
To prevent others – rogue or negligent Google
employees or hackers – misusing my profile, it is not directly linked to my
name. Only a handful of very senior Google engineers can access my data. Not
a single byte will ever be made available – far less flogged – to
I have to opt in to iGoogle. And even then, I can control how my web use is monitored. I can, if I want, restrict it simply to web searches, rather than all web history. I can delete certain search queries or web pages that I have visited from my search history. If I decide I don’t like the idea of personalized search, I can permanently delete my search history and go back to using Google’s regular search service, where I can be sure none of my personal search or web history will be recorded.
Google stores all general search queries for 18 months, but the information is aggregated and not linked to individual users.
Critics dismiss the measures as ineffective.
They point out it is up to me to permanently delete my iGoogle personalized data. Many users will forget, and their personal data will be “out there” for ever. Google, they claim, is experimenting with sending targeted ads to mobile phones. However strict its privacy policies may be, some fear the firm may be forced one day to make public my private data whether it wants to or not and regardless of whether I want it to or not.
Competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have forced Microsoft to share some of its Windows software with rivals because, regulators argued, Microsoft tried to use its market-dominant system to stifle competition.
If Google uses our data to
create its own monopoly, regulators might take similar action.
Google thinks that creating a free-to-use global library and global computer is “a good thing”. But it can only become a really useful library and computer if it knows more about the people that use it: you and me.
If we trust it, it can do things for us we could never have imagined, things that Googleytes call “the magic stuff”.
The £100 billion question, therefore, is:
In spite of the growing furore over privacy, the signs are that we might sign up. iGoogle personalized search is Google’s fastest-growing new product. It already accounts for one in five searches in America.
The service has just been launched in Europe,
and Google claims the take-up is strong.
Above the din of chattering classes railing against
“Googlezilla” can be heard the tip-tap of hundreds of millions of ordinary
users willingly signing up to what they consider to be Google’s benign
digital dictatorship. What’s another hunk of privacy lost if it makes life
But it also highlights how much of the world it
has already conquered and reveals how much it soon hopes to colonize. It is
the perfect metaphor for where that simple little search box we use every
day has come from and what its vaulting ambitions are. It does not simply
want to be a good search engine on the web: it wants to be the web.
In the end, it’s up to us. Google has only gone from being the most famous misspelling since “potatoe” to a verb recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary because you, me – in fact, almost all of us – use it. If we carry on logging on, it will carry on growing. And growing.
If we don’t, it won’t.
The choice – the click – is ours.