I just finished Ken Auletta’s latest book, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, and I highly recommend it. Auletta is an amazingly gifted journalist and knows how put together a hell of good story. It helps in this case that he was granted unprecedented access to the Google team and their day-to-day workings at the Googleplex. I’m really shocked by the level of access he was granted to important meetings and officials–over 150 interviews with Googlers, including 11 with CEO Eric Schmidt and several with founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. That’s impressive.
The book shares much in common with Randall Stross’s excellent Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know, which I reviewed here earlier this year. Both books recount the history of Google from its early origins to present. And both survey a great deal of ground in terms of the challenges that Google faces as it matures and the policy issues that are relevant to the company (privacy, free speech, copyright law, etc).
What makes Auletta’s book unique is the way we taps his extensive “old media” world contacts and integrates such a diverse cast of characters into the narrative — Mel Karmazin (former Viacom, now Sirius XM), Bob Iger (Disney), Howard Stringer (Sony), Martin Sorrrell (WPP), Irwin Gotlieb (Group M), and even the Internet’s “inventor”–Al Gore! Auletta interviews them or recounts stories about their interactions with Google to show the growing tensions being created by this disruptive company and its highly disruptive technologies. There are some terrifically entertaining anecdotes in the book, but the bottom line is clear: Google has made a lot of enemies in a very short time.
Indeed, the book is as much about the decline of old media as it is about Google’s ascendancy. What Auletta has done so brilliantly here is to tell their stories together and ask how much old media’s recent woes can be blamed on Google and digital disintermediation in general. “If Google is destroying or weakening old business models,” Auletta argues, “it is because the Internet inevitably destroys old ways of doing things, spurs ‘creative destruction.’ This does not mean that Google is not ambitious to grow, and will not grow at the expense of others. But the rewards, and the pain, are unavoidable,” he concludes. Google is essentially just the tip of a giant wave of digital disintermediation that is tearing through the media landscape, Auletta argues. But because it is the biggest and most visible part of this wave, it invites greater scrutiny and scorn. And then there are more profound questions about Google and the digital disintermediators: “What we don’t know is whether the new digital distribution systems will generate sufficient revenue to adequately pay content providers.” Auletta isn’t just talking about old media giants, but about content creators in general. It’s the “digital sharecropper” concern that Nick Carr has articulated in his book about cloud computing, The Big Switch. [reviewed here] In the relentless pursuit of greater efficiencies, do digital disintermediators destroy the cross-subsidization methods that have traditionally funded the creation of news, information, and entertainment? If so, are we better off because older, “less efficient” ways of doing business are replaced with better ones. Or are we instead left with less high-quality journalism and entertainment because of funding streams are drying up or being siphoned off by the new digital disintermediators?
Those are heated question frequently debated by Internet optimists and pessimists. It’s a great debate, and one that will no doubt continue to rage for many years to come. The problem for Google — as the interviews Auletta conducts with others in the book makes clear — is that it will increasingly become the scapegoat for every problem under the digital sun. “To blame Google is to prescribe a cure from the wrong illness,” Auletta notes. Nonetheless, as the biggest and most visible of the digital disruptors, it’s clear the company will have a target on its back for many years to come.
Worse yet for Google, Aulleta states, is that the company is “waking the government bear,” not just because of its growing size but also because of the sheer amount of information it collects and puts at the world’s disposal. Privacy, child safety, defamation, and copyright are just a few of the concerns raised by Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google has gone to great pains to address these concerns, but it’s unlikely to ever be enough to satisfy government officials, who will be fielding increasing complaints from disgruntled competitors and activist groups at the same time.
These concerns could play into the hands of those who think antitrust action against Google is needed. Indeed, I fear that’s on the way given the myopia of Washington. As I pointed out in my lengthy review of Gary Reback’s ode to antitrust regulation, Free the Market: Why Only Government Can Keep the Marketplace Competitive, the static competition, fixed-pie mindset that rules Washington leads many to support antitrust crusades against the tech giants of the day. In the 70s it was IBM. In the 90s it was Microsoft. In the next decade it will likely be Google.
“Today, Google appears impregnable,” Auletta notes, “But a decade ago so did AOL, and so did the combination of AOL Time Warner.” Indeed, I have written extensively about that deal and many others that critics predicted would bring on a techno-apocalypse. Of course, we know how the story ended in those cases. Markets and technologies evolved while the old giants rested on their laurels. Dynamic competition and innovation are the rule; the static mindset crowd that pretends today’s giants are the end of the story just don’t have history on their side.
But that doesn’t mean Google will be able to avoid a massive regulatory onslaught. In fact, I have pending bets going right now with several friends that, before the Obama Administration leaves office, it will launch the biggest, most costly antitrust jihad in U.S. history against Google. I can’t tell you how much I am hoping to lose those bets.
P.S. I have enjoyed many of Auletta’s earlier articles and books, especially Backstory: Inside the Business of News (2003), but I highly recommend that you check out the latest essay he posted on his blog about “Media Maxims.” Outstanding insights.