I have been reading Ken Auletta's pieces for many years, usually in the New Yorker, where he is its resident media critic, but also a few of his books.
I have also been, like most people, using an increasing number of Google services, from its search pages to its email systems, for years.
So reading this book and interviewing its author seemed about as logical as, well, using Google to do all the searches as part of the interview.
Auletta explains his thoughts behind this project in the first paragraph of the acknowledgements page:
"This book was written two and one half years ago. I aspired to profile a company at the epicenter of the digital revolution, a company whose rise would also tell the story of how "new" media disrupted "old," and offer a glimpse into the future of media. Google was my chosen vehicle, but the company was reluctant to cooperate. Google's founders and many of its executives share a zeal to digitize books, but don't have much interst in reading them. They worried that cooperating on a book was an "inefficient" use of their time. I made the argument that my task was to understand and explain what they do and how they are changing the media world, and that they should look upon my product much as they look upon search. If my book was good, it would rise to the top of search results, becoming a common reference. After months of my kicking at the door, they opened it.
I'll post links to additional reviews as they are published.
The book is a good informative read. I thought I knew a lot about Google but I ended up learning quite a bit. One of the more interesting ones, as I talk about in the interview, is the idea of giving employees the chance to spend 20 percent of their time working on any project they wanted. Google News is one result of that option.
Auletta clearly did exhaustive research for this book, talking not only to Google executives and supporters but also detractors, critics, members of old media who blame the collapse of some newspapers on Google.I debated that issue with one author making that claim, Andrew Keen, here.
He also quotes, among others who are experts in their respective fields, Lawrence Lessig, who I interviewed here. Lessig, who makes some insightful remarks about Google, and Walter Isaacson are also both quoted on the book jacket praising this book.
Auletta, as is often the case in his writing and report, leaves no stone or issue unturned, from the legal fight over scanning and digitizing books to what impact Google has had on the news media, both of the "old" and new variety.
I highly recommend anyone interested in technology or media read this book.
What were the biggest surprises to you as you did research for this book?
I kept asking as I got deeper into the reporting: How come the two co-founders of Google, who were in their twenties, have such clarity of thought? How did they know that they had to first build user trust, foregoing ads on Google's home page, not trying to trap users in a Google site and instead sending them to their search destination?
I was also surprised by the breadth of Google's ambitions. They didn't intend to become a giant media company, but as they asked the engineers' favorite question -- Why? -- they came to realize that Google could become a force in selling advertising, in books and television and telephones and news and software.
How much of a role do you think Google's work environment (the massages, food, working on pet projects) is a factor in their innovations?
Of all the employee benefits, the key one in terms of innovation is granting engineers 20% of their time -- a day a week -- to work on any project they choose. From this time have come many of Google's innovations. A reason it's so vital to innovation is that it gives engineers a sense of liberation, or freedom to pursue their dreams.The other benefits -- the sumptuous free food, the massages, the free medical care -- make Google a happier place to work, but are not as central to Google's innovative culture.
Do you think other companies could benefit from some of those job benefits or is it not really a model that can be replicated?
I do. And companies like Facebook, among others, have copied from Google's largesse.
Is Google that rare company that benefitted from the dot.com bust?
Yes. When Silicon Valley was contracting and shedding engineers in 2000, Google was expanding. It was able to hire some of the Valley's best engineers.
How did your own attitude to Google change during the course of researching and writing this book?
In ways too numerous to recite. I liken what I do as a reporter to visiting other planets and getting to know the natives and their unique culture. I ask a lot of questions because I don't know the answers. Therefore surprises are constant.
How much was the Montessori and Standford backgrounds of the two founders a factor in making them who they are?
Both Larry Page and Sergey Brin were Montessori students, their parents were scentists. They both say they took from these experiences a sense of independence and freedom, a willingness to question everything. By the time they arrived at Stanford for graduate school, they already brought this attitude. Stanford just reinforced it.
One of the best parts about the book was about privacy and how Google did not seem to understand why people were fine with using credit cards at restaurants but scared that sites like Google would use private information nefariously. Why do you think a) Google didn't understand and b) People do have that disconnect between using credit cards at "off-line" businesses and online ones?
The downside of having young engineers run a digital company is that they may be brilliant scientists but they have huge gaps in their awareness of the world. Because Page and Brin believe their motives are noble, they don't understand why people might fear how they might abuse the mountain of private data Google collects. People's fears are inchoate, based at least in part on emotion. Page and Brin are better at understanding math than emotion. They lack Emotional Intelligence, as Brin admitted when I questioned him about it.
Do you see the parts of this book about the television networks not getting it (regarding the internet) sort of a continuation or extension of your excellent "Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way" book about the television networks?
Of course. The TV networks were late to understand a disruptive new technology that surfaced in the eighties -- cable. Instead of investing in cable, they were in denial. Similarly, traditional media was late to comprehend a disruptive new technology in the nineties -- the Internet. If they had had a proper sense of alarm, they would have jumped to adjust their business models. Why did music companies continue to sell CD albums when digital technology empowered consumers to buy individual songs? Why did newspapers and magazines not more aggresively hurl themselves into online publications that didnt just replicate their print models? Why didn't traditiona lmedia companies invest more aggressively in digital companies?
Can you clarify the statement talked about here? It's quite possibly out of context. Thanks.
The statement is "I'm Harsher on Traditional Media Companies Than I Am on Google" - its blogged about here:
I come away with many concerns about Google, from its size, to the information they collect on each of us, to what may be a near monopoly on digital copies of books. But I come away from my reporting convinced that too many traditional media companies spend too much time whining about the Google menace, moaning for the good old days. The world as they knew it is ended. Snap out of your denial. Lean forward and ask: How does my company invest in the digital world? How do we better ride the digital wave? Many traditional media companies have smacked into the wave; many will unavoidably drown. Others should be paddling harder.