Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Google goes electric

With the ruling against Google's boook agreement today, I thought it might be a good time to resurrect this slightly revised post from the Xooglers archive.


There's a lot in the news these days about Google Book Search. People wonder how Google could so arrogantly assume it can scan books under copyright and offer up snippets to online searchers. I'm not going into the details of the discussions that led to that decision here, but I'd like to offer my own observations on the culture that bred it.

For many engineers, and particularly for Larry and Sergey, truth was often self-evident and unassailable. The inability of others to recognize truth did not make it any less absolute. Obviously, it's a good idea to make as much information as possible available to as many people as possible. Obviously, a lot of valuable information is in books. Obviously, helping people find that information is good. Obviously, an author only benefits if people find out that his or her book contains useful information. There are no shades of grey in this. Truth is, after all, a binary function.

When truth is on your side, it's not important to slow down and explain things, because the value of what you're doing is so self-evident that eventually people will see it for themselves. That attitude was one of Google's core strengths and perhaps its greatest Achilles heel. It infused all of Google's most controversial decisions, from launching a better search engine in an already crowded field, to putting ads in Gmail, to scanning books without permission.

Recently, I heard a recording of Bob Dylan at his 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert. Halfway through the show he switches from an acoustic solo performance to an electric guitar backed by a full band. The reaction of his folkie fans is not positive. At the end of "Ballad of a Thin Man," a crowd member yells, "Judas!," to which Dylan replies, "I don't believe you!" A pause. Then with disbelief and anger twisting his voice, "You're a liar!" He then tells his band to "play fuckin' loud" and rips into a raw and wrathful "Like a Rolling Stone."

The first time I heard that, I thought to myself, that's Larry Page. It doesn't matter what the fans think, when it's so obviously the right thing to do, you just do it. Eventually, they'll understand. Even if that means for a while you're gonna be out there on your own....

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