In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy
I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 by Douglas Edwards
The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry!) by Siva Vaidhyanathan
Search and Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc. by Scott Cleland with Ira Brodsky
Rather than a comprehensive review of the books, Gleick’s essay describes the early history of Google, some of its technological innovations, a few of its scrapes with the law regarding privacy, and just how comprehensive its knowledge of individuals is. Along the way he makes a couple of really interesting points:
Gleick says that no one really understands very well how and how much Google has changed the information economy. But he observes that the products, the merchandise, of this new economy are not information itself but attention. “These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.” What Google sells is the attention that we as users willingly give to it.
For businesses, Google provides a way to more effectively target their ads by matching their keywords to users’ search history. The company justifies this to the users by saying that it is helping marketers better understand what a user might be looking for. But in fact it uses advanced artificial intelligence, which in this case is targeted advertising, to entice a huge and enthusiastic advertising base to sign up for its services. And by making the terms based on pay-per-click rather pay for ad placement and by monitoring what users clicked on what ads, they offer the quantitative evaluation of the success of ads that businesses have long sought. As John Wanamaker, an early department store merchant, observed, “ Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” It’s a problem that has plagued businesses for a long time, so Google’s finding an answer constitutes a major breakthrough.
Gleick finds the basis for Google’s domination in Siva Vaidhyananthan’s The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry). Basically they both argue that Google “dominates” us because it tracks our searches and the ads we click on. The company claims it uses that information to deliver better search results and ads to individual users based on the interests and biases they exhibit in their searching and advertising interests. But then it also uses that information in the aggregate to help advertisers better target prospective customers and makes a lot of money in the process.
Actually I don’t find that Google dominates its users in this way. It certainly dominates the online advertising business, with 41% of all online revenue flowing into its coffers. And it dominates the search engine business, being by far the most popular search site out there. And it's trying to dominate other online business arenas as well. But it doesn’t really dominate its users. What it actually does is exploit which, which I think may well be worse.