How Google Has Changed the World: A Conversation With Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta/Image courtesy of The New Yorker

The author of a seminal new book about media talks with Cynthia McFadden about the future of print, the cost of information — and whether we should trust the largest search engine in the world.

Editor’s Note: New Yorker media correspondent Ken Auletta is the author of Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, just published by The Penguin Press.

CYNTHIA: Ken, welcome and congratulations on your new book, which I loved. It does seem to be the end of the world as we know it, but explain a little bit to me.

KEN: It’s the end of the world as we know it, I think, in two ways. One is that Google transforms our world as consumers. I mean, we can search the Internet for anything. It used to be that the Internet made information available, but Google makes it accessible — and that’s a big difference. The impact that Google can have on the Third World is also extraordinary. Imagine students in some African country or some country in south Asia being able to do research and gather information, textbooks, from a Google search. The other reason I subtitled my book “The End of the World As We Know It” is the impact of Google on traditional media. Think about newspapers. They aggregate to Google News, or through a search, all the newspapers in the world. Newspapers claim that it makes them a commodity, and it cheapens their product. YouTube, which Google owns, provides television, which diverts eyeballs away from traditional television. As for advertising – well, Google generates $21 billion a year in advertising from those little text ads, but they only charge the advertiser when you click on the ad. A much more efficient system, but one that’s very threatening to the advertising business, which is basically saying, “Spend $3 million on a Super Bowl ad,” and we don’t know who you reach.

CYNTHIA: Yes, I love the beginning of the book where [former CBS president] Mel Karmazin says, “Hold it a second. They’ll ruin my model. My model requires a certain amount of razzmatazz and magic. You’re taking all the magic.”

KEN: That’s right, they’re messing with the magic. But they’re messing with the magic of traditional business, be it book publishers, or Microsoft, or telephone companies. And so their world is never going to be the same.

CYNTHIA: Here’s the question for people who care about traditional media, as you and I do, since it is the basis of our livelihood. It’s great to make the content available, and available widely, and available free. But might that ultimately drive the content away? I mean, who’s going to pay for the creation of the content?

KEN: That is a fundamental question. I tell a story in my book of a conversation I had with Sergey Brin, who’s one of the two co-founders of Google. He comes into the room on his rollerblades, and he throws his knapsack down on the conference room table – and he says, “Ken, I’ve just got a question. Before you ask your questions, let me ask you mine. Why don’t you, instead of publishing this book in book form, why don’t you publish it online, on the Internet, for free? You’ll get a much larger audience.” I said, “That’s an interesting question. Let me ask you a couple of questions, Sergey.” I said, “Let’s say I do publish it for free, who’s going to pay me? I mean, that’s how I make my living, writing books. I’m on a leave from The New Yorker; who’s going to pay me?” He says, “Oh.” I said, “Let me ask you another question.” I said, “Who’s going to pay me for all my trips out here – airfare, hotels, rent-a-car?” “Oh.” I said, “Who’s going to edit my book? Who’s going to index my book? Who’s going to do my marketing campaign if I go on a book tour?” “Oh.” At that point he wanted to change the subject. So what does that tell you? It told me two things. One is that he really doesn’t understand how the book publishing business works, and he has this kind of narrow constrictive view. But it also told me that he really comes from the Valley, Silicon Valley, which believes information should be allowed to be free.

CYNTHIA: I’m sure you thought about this long and hard. So what’s the answer?

KEN: I’m very critical of traditional media for being slow to understand the Internet, slow to invest in digital technology and slow to try and figure out how to ride the wave rather than crash into it. I think they have to lean forward and say, “How do we charge for content?” I think the idea that everything should be free on the Internet is going to change. And by the way, I report in my book that there are people, like Marc Andreessen who invented Netscape, and like John Hennessy, who’s the president of Stanford and is on the Google board, who believe they have to stop being reliant on just advertising on the Internet. And I think that’s true. I also think publishers have to start figuring out how to create a new revenue stream on the Internet by charging for content. Now, I don’t know whether Rupert Murdoch’s idea of making a deal with Microsoft’s search engine Bing — and getting paid for it — is one that will work out. But that’s exactly the kind of thing you’ve got to try.

CYNTHIA: One of the things that you report on so well is how Google is a company that wants to create this free access to all information, except about Google. It’s very difficult to uncover information that they’ve deemed proprietary about their own company. Talk a little bit about that. Even the number of employees, the data centers, all of that – it’s very hard to get your hands around.

KEN: I think they’re imbued with a culture that Larry Page, the other co-founder, started with. As a young man, he had studied Nikola Tesla’s work. Tesla was the man who arguably really invented electricity, before Thomas Edison; but because he shared his secrets, he died poor and bitter. And Larry Page, as a young man, decided that if he starts a business, he is going to keep things secret. Now, there’s some good reason to keep things secret. For instance, Google doesn’t share its algorithm for determining who rises to the top of a search. There’s a good reason for that secrecy: because they want to avoid people being able to game the system. If people can game the system, then you and I as users would not trust that system. On the other hand, if you ask Google how many employees they have in India, or how many data centers they have and where they are, you may as well be asking the CIA questions. It comes across as kind of preposterous.

CYNTHIA: One of the things that interests me most is the mindset of this company. You did such a good job taking us inside. Run by engineers, as you explain it, not so interested in killing their competition as much as eliminating inefficiencies, as you put it. Talk a little bit about that.

KEN: I had written a book about ten years ago on Microsoft, and now this book on Google. And the differences I found between the two companies are stark. Back in the late ’90s, when Microsoft lost two court cases saying that they were a monopoly, they were interested in killing the competition. They wanted to kill Netscape. But Google doesn’t set out to kill … they’re not cold businessmen the way Microsoft was. They’re cold engineers. And a cold engineer is someone who basically, as you said, Cynthia, looks for inefficiency. So they say, “It’s inefficient the way advertising is done,” and they’re right. By the way, the way newspapers are produced is inefficient. I mean you’re killing trees, expensive paper, expensive printing presses and expensive trucks that belch pollution into the air. So it would be much more efficient if you could do it online. The problem is, how do you make money doing it online and not kill the content that’s so valuable to us as a society? That’s the basic question. But the engineer is not asking that question. The engineer is saying, “How do I create a new, more efficient system?” And they’re not thinking about the consequences.

CYNTHIA: How does Google’s motto — “Don’t be evil” — play into the ethos of the company?

KEN: They are in many ways a very idealistic company that has done very noble things. Just think about it. First of all, Google is free. I mean, how do you compete with free? A cable executive once said to me, “How do I compete with free? The public hates us. They love Google. Why? It’s free.” And it’s true, it is free. But it’s more than free. You go to the homepage of Google, but there are no ads on that homepage. They’re not cluttering that, bombarding you with advertising. When you do a search, they don’t try and trap you in a Google site the way Yahoo or AOL does. They send you to the site of your choice. And if you’re an advertiser, you only pay when someone clicks on your ad. And so there’s a reason Google wins the trust. On the other hand, they are a bit self-righteous. I mean, to say, “Don’t be evil,” and then to make a compromise with the Chinese government that if you do a search in China, you can’t find anything about Tiananmen Square … I don’t know whether it’s evil, but it’s not good.

CYNTHIA: There was a famous Time magazine cover a while back saying, “Can we trust Google?”  Let me ask you that question. Can we trust Google?

KEN: Well, I trust Google in the sense that I think that they mean to do honorable things, and in fact they do accomplish many honorable things. But I don’t trust anyone with power. I don’t think you turn over your trust to any company, or government, or individual, who has immense power. Now, that does not make Google, as Microsoft was, a monopoly. It doesn’t make Google evil. But I do think that anyone with that kind of power should be watched warily.

CYNTHIA: You spent almost three years reporting and writing this book. Google has obviously changed everything. But is it a good change? Or would you like to turn back time?

KEN: I wouldn’t like to turn back time. I think that more good than bad has come out of Google. But I think we have to be cognizant that there are some bad results. For instance, The New York Times did a front-page story the other day on the sewer systems in the United States, including New York, and how antiquated and dangerous they are. I bet that investigative story by that sole reporter at the Times took two months to report. If the Times can’t survive, or has to be more budget-conscious than they already are, how do you have that kind of reporting that is so invaluable to a democracy?

CYNTHIA: And how do we? I mean, Google at one point was thinking about buying The New York Times.

KEN: Well, they never talked to the Times about it. They did talk about it among themselves, but decided not to do it for a very good reason — which is that if [a company like Google] owned a paper like The New York Times, its search would no longer be neutral. And therefore, people would lose trust in [that company] because they’d think it was favoring a site that they owned. But Google’s CEO and Larry Page talked to me about how important good information is, and how important, therefore, The New York Times’ information is. They’re trying to figure out ways to pump money to advertising at The New York Times website. So far, they haven’t come up with a way that makes The New York Times healthy, but they’re working on it. Now, will they ever? I don’t know, and that’s one of the basic questions. But one of the things that Murdoch is doing by threatening to make a deal with Microsoft, which is trying to compete with Google search, is that it opens up a potential model. Will it work? I have no idea. But you have to try different things. By trying that, they throw Google a little off balance, and that’s not a bad thing.

CYNTHIA: Have you heard from the founders since the book has come out?

KEN: No, I haven’t heard. They’re not big readers anyway. (Laughter.) But I actually spoke at Google in Mountain View, CA, the week before last, and I spoke at Google in New York. They have this thing where different authors come and speak, almost every day. So I did at both Google locations, and it was interesting. I also spoke at Microsoft a couple days before I spoke at Google.

CYNTHIA: Well, I’m with Walter Isaacson, who says that yours is the seminal book about media in the digital age. I mean, it’s so jam-packed with extremely good information, but so well told. It’s also a tale, it’s also a yarn. It’s populated with the personalities of these guys who started this company. Tell us just a little bit about these two guys, who are not your usual media kingpins. They’re a new generation.

KEN: They both just turned 36. Their mothers and fathers were both scientists. Larry Page is from Michigan, and went to the University of Michigan before going to Stanford. Sergey Brin went to University of Maryland before going to Stanford. They met at Stanford. They argued the first time they met. They became real buddies, and they’re very close. They share an office.

CYNTHIA: I love that. They can afford their own offices at this point.

KEN: They also share a net worth of about $16 billion each. But they’re very close, they’re very simpatico and they’re very brilliant. And they’re passionate about their product. If you sit in, as I did, engineering meetings there … you know, I understood maybe half the words spoken in these meetings.

CYNTHIA: You said you had to have an interpreter.

KEN: Yes, I did. But they understood every word, and they could challenge the engineer. One of the lessons you take from that is that if you are in the digital world and you don’t have an engineer at your elbow, you’re a dope — because they can translate for you, and tell you how to position your company for this new world. If you go to traditional media companies, how many engineers are sitting at the elbow of the CEO?

CYNTHIA: I can remember as a kid in grade school, my parents scrimped and saved and bought the World Book Encyclopedia. And I can remember sitting on the floor reading the World Book Encyclopedia, looking up whatever my project of the day was, Kansas, and reading the things that came next to Kansas. One of the changes in this world is that kids in school today go to Google. That’s their research. I said to my son, “Do you want the encyclopedia?” He said, “Are you kidding me? Why?”

KEN: It’s a real issue. I had the conversation with my 14-year-old nephew. He was doing a piece on a 15th-century project the other day, and I said, “How did you do the research?” And he said, “Google.” But he also said something else that actually interested me. He said, “There are sites out there that my school, and other schools, subscribe to. So when I hand in my paper, they scan it and send it to the site, and they get back whether it’s plagiarized or not.”

CYNTHIA: Wow!

KEN: I actually forget the name of the site, but it’s something, Check Your Something. And I love that. I think that’s really cool. It’s a site run by a PhD, they’re educators, and the school pays a fee for it.

CYNTHIA: But is there not something lost by that old feeling of the adjacencies? I mean, it’s like reading The New York Times. I set out to read the story on Iraq, and I end up reading the story that’s right next to it as well, that I might never have searched for. I mean, aren’t we losing something?

KEN: Absolutely right. There are two thoughts that burst into my mind. One is that you lose the serendipity experience that you just described, and online you tend not to read it the same way you do with a paper; you go to business. You don’t wade through the pages and find surprises. The other thing is, there are teachers now who refuse to allow their students to do Google searches. They say to them, “I want you to read a book and wrestle with that book, and be surprised by the things you will find, because you’re not narrowing the search, you’re broadening it.”  And so there’s a kickback.

CYNTHIA: There’s a big difference between finding answers and finding understanding. And so I guess my final question to you is, do you think the guys at Google care about what we were just talking about? Do they care about the way they’re affecting the way people learn and process information, and how they look at the vast sums of information available? Do you think they worry about this?

KEN: These are not automatons. I mean, they’re all – Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Eric Smith, the CEO – they’re good human beings. They’re not people who walk around callously ignoring consequences, which is one of the reasons I have these long talks with them in the book about why The New York Times is important to society and to Google search. But when you’re dealing with engineers, they are people who tend to live a more narrow life, and they have to be educated. And hopefully, if one or two of them read a book like mine, maybe they’ll see that it all has consequences. Some of them they know; Larry Page spoke quite eloquently to me about his concerns about journalism. He said, “One of the things that’s wrong with the digital world is that the publisher gets feedback on what stories in the online newspaper people like.” And he says, “One of the things I worry about is they’re going to get feedback that people want more Britney Spears, and less Afghanistan.” He said, “That’s not good.” So he’s sensitive in that regard. Does he understand the consequences for book reading or education? I suspect not. But I think he’s educable. I mean, I think these are people who are not closed off. They actually self-define themselves as people who have a conscience. And that’s a good starting point.

CYNTHIA: Absolutely. Well, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It’s really paradigm shifting — a new way of looking at things, and a depth of understanding. And as always, we need more books. We need more books like this one. Ken, thank you so much. And congratulations again.

KEN: Thank you, Cynthia.

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