On Ken Auletta’s Googled

I admit it, I was predisposed to hate Ken Auletta’s Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, so I was oddly disappointed when it turned out to be the best book I’ve read on the company.

Auletta’s an excellent journalist, but he’s a tendency towards hero worship and a “great men” view of history. His fascination with media moguls contrasts with Jonathan A. Knee, Bruce C. Greenwald and Ava Seave’s The Curse of the Mogul: The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies, which argues that the peculiarly American paranoia about the media industry’s ability and inclination to mold the national psyche” gives it unwarranted prominence in our culture. Auletta was the Boswell of the “synergistic” media titans of the responsible for “The Information Superhighway.” While the Web was emerging as a mass medium in the late 90s Auletta was focused on Barry Diller and John Malone’s power lunches at Michael’s.  Auletta published a set of his mid-90s New Yorker articles in the 1997 book The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway. (Like its namesake supergroup, The Highwaymen centers on fading stars who failed to stay up with the times.) The book has two references to Netscape—one made in passing by Michael Kinsley and one by Auletta, who describes it as “the software company that developed a product that simplified access to the Internet.” The Web, Marc Andreesen and Tim Berners-Lee do not appear anywhere in the index; “Internet” is mentioned 8 times, 4 times more than “Ice-T.”

I loved Highwaymen when it came out and can’t blame Auletta for not understanding the full impact of the Web. It’s to Auletta’s credit that so much of the book still resonates 13 years later– others are still a bit out of tune:

Changes in the way we communicate will be profound. Elementary-school children will not only read and be told about ancient Egypt, they will experience it by summoning virtual images of pyramids and figuratively floating along the Nile. With electronic tools, more citizens will work at home. Corporations will become less hierarchical as middle managers and others begin to talk directly to CEOs through e-mail. Many layers of management will become superfluous. File cabinets will be discarded, as information will be stored in computer files. In unpredictable ways, computers will alter the importance of geographic proximity—and reshape cities. Work, and play, will be transformed.

The most interesting chapter in Highwaymen , and the most quaint, is Jumping Off a Bridge: Microsoft, and Michael Kinsely, Enter Cyberspace, from  May, 1996.  Auletta explains how to access Slate online: “Those who subscribe… will connect to the Internet and type ‘http://www.slate.com,’ and it will appear….Kinsley and his team planned to have hyperlinks, or highlighted words, accompany certain articles, so that readers could click on them.”

Googled seems to be Auletta’s attempt to make amends for all he missed in the early days of the Internet when he was hanging out in Sun Valley and Manhattan lunch spots. Auletta wasn’t alone in his failure to understand the implications of the Internet. To him “the burgeoning Internet” was merely another platform for  “the entertainment/information business” that was his terra firma. Thirteen years after Highwaymen, Auletta still has plenty of old-media analysis to include in Googled. The book’s narrative thread, however, is firmly set in Mountain View. (He sequesters most of the old media voices into two chapters, “Is ‘Old’ Media Drowning” and “Where is the Wave Taking Old Media.”)

Googled works not because of Auletta’s old media framing, but because of his ability to access and get good stories out of Eric Schmidt, early Googlers and, to a lesser degree, Seregy Brin and Larry Page.

The book opens with a discussion of old media’s failure to adjust to the web—“The media buzzwords were convergence and synergy.” Auletta does not acknowledge his role in building the buzz for those concepts.

Auletta describes the hubris that so many old, and more than a few new, media figures see in Google. One telling vignette derived from an exchange in which Brin “playfully ribbed me for writing this book. ‘People don’t buy books,’ he said…. ‘You might make more money if you put it online…More people will read it and get excited about it.’ Auletta responded with many reasons why that wouldn’t work: how could he report the book without a publisher’s advance? “With no publisher, who would edit and then copyright the book?…The usually voluble Brin grew quiet, ready to change the subject.”

Auletta foreshadows some 2010 Google developments.

The seeds of Buzz: “Although it has a broader base of data, social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Ning, or Linkedin retain more in-depth information about individuals and their community of friends.”

China In Highwaymen, Auletta wrote optimistically that “the government of China cannot block access to the Internet, anymore than the Communist governments of Eastern Europe could seal their borders against faxes and telephones and satellites.” In Googled he describes a World Economic Forum exchange in which Singaporean and Iranian officials spoke in favor of a regulated Internet. “This exchange was a reminder that ‘common values’ are not always common, and that Google, whose mission is to share and make the world’s information accessible, will always have government bears to contend with.”

Auletta chooses to use Google’s vaunted 20% time to question the company’s maturity.  Auletta reports on a COO “of an old media company” asking a Google tour guide about the practice. “Has there ever been a product started where someone said, ‘OK, it’s not what we thought it was. We should get rid of it.’? ‘I don’t think so,’ answered their tour guide….’This is a company that doesn’t set priorites,’ said another former Google executive.

I was hoping for more, as I’ve been curious about how 20% time is being used by other organizations—non-engineering companies in particular.  (I’ve only had one such report, that John Palfrey has introduced 20% at the Harvard Law Library.) After reading this week’s blog posts by Toni Schneider and Rob Paterson on the benefits of distributed companies, I’m curious to learn more about how virtualpractices are being used by non-geek companies.

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