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Researching Google

Leslie D'Monte  |  Mumbai 

Trying to make sense of how hundreds of billions of neurons inside the brains of Google’s co-founders worked to create the internet search giant is akin to the mythological Greek hero Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Richard L Brandt attempted to do two years ago in his book Inside Larry and Sergey’s Brain, which has now been rechristened as The Google Guys. The new version has “a new afterword” which acknowledges the many changes at Google like Larry Page becoming the CEO and success of the Android operating system.

Through interviews with the current and former employees, competitors, partners and senior management, besides conversations with the founders, Brandt attempts to demystify the “secret” society that is Google. Though he does succeed to a great extent in fleshing out the characters of Larry and Sergey, one cannot help but feel that he could have devoted more space to better address the criticisms over violations of privacy, patents and copyrights.

It is understandably difficult to do justice to all these issues in one book. But then, that is also the challenge, especially given the allegations made by privacy experts, media houses, publishers and competitors like Apple and Microsoft. The assertion that “most of all, they’re [Larry and Sergey] idealists, believers in the power of the internet to make the world a better place” may not cut much ice with detractors.

Brandt, for instance, argues that Larry and Sergey “are Google” and acted “like two-halves of a well-balanced machine” to create the world’s greatest internet library, 2,000 years after Ptolemy I built the world’s largest library in Alexandria. Few will challenge this claim. But to do so, Brandt says, the Google co-founders had to be “ruthless” and justifies it by citing how the Ptolemies would confiscate all scrolls found on ships that entered the port of Alexandria and return copies to their owners. Ptolemy III kept the original in the library and returned copies to Athenians even though he had to pay a fine. Without debating the merits of this practice, even a cursory reading of The Shallows: What the Internet (read Google to a large extent) Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr will provide enough fodder to critically examine whether Google’s online library, and its algorithm-based searches, can be compared with research done in a brick-and-mortar library.

Google, similarly, wants to index all the world’s It also has to contend with copyright violations, if any. Google has admitted in the past that it has run into copyright problems but insists that indexing all “is part of our core mission”. Brandt’s justification is that though Larry and Sergey were idealists earlier, with age they “have developed more willingness to compromise” (in this case, reached a settlement with book publishers).

Much of the ire directed at Google, argues Brandt, is owing to corporate resistance to the massive changes Google is thrusting on the business world. “Larry and Sergey are wickedly clever. They break the mould. They challenge old industries and make a lot of enemies,” he writes. Google, for instance, had one lawyer on its staff seven years back; now it has over 100. Brandt believes that bloggers are primarily responsible for making Google look “evil” as it becomes bigger. But he says that’s not the case. Rather, “the arguments [of privacy violation] are overwhelmingly ‘what if?’ scenarios, rather than actual examples of evil”. “There has never been a documented case of Google violating its users’ privacy, either losing control accidentally or engaging in such practices as selling information to spammers,” argues Brandt. Is that true? Consider Google’s attempt to photograph neighbourhoods around the world as part of its Street View programme. The tech giant equipped its vehicles with antennae and cameras to create a database with the names of Wi-fi networks and the coding of Wi-fi routers. It collected about 600 gigabytes of data from users of public Wi-fi stations (not owned by Google) during 2006-2010, including snippets of private data such as emails, in more than 30 countries. Google had to apologise and admit the private data were collected inadvertently. This is no “what if” scenario.

Meanwhile, over the last few years, similar books on this subject have been published. These include Googled: The End of the World as We Know it by Ken Auletta; In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy; The Google Way: How One Company is Revolutionising Management as we Know it by Bernard Girard; What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis; The Googlisation of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry) by Siva Vaidhyanathan; and The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

Read in conjunction with these books, The Google Guys offers reasonably good insights into Google. If read in isolation, it may lead the uninitiated reader to believe that Google is simply a victim of competitors who do not understand technology.

Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Richard L Brandt
Penguin; 255 pages; Rs 399

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First Published: Tue, November 01 2011. 00:12 IST