Generation Googletm

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Phil over at Philosophistry writes about Google's role as a cultural phenomenon rather than a company:
...we shouldn't look at Google as a company anymore. We should put Google on the same plane as social institution. No wait, that's too small. We should treat them on the order of magnitude the way that the Greeks treated their Oracles. Hell, they even deserve a place of worship side-by-side the Internet itself. There's the Internet and then there's Google, two separate, yet intertwined, and equally powerful components.
"A Company, Google is Not." A cultural icon, perhaps, but more like a group brain we all feed into.
Google has certainly become ubiquitous among internet users these days, and it certainly is powerful. And while all the programmers really did was write some search algorithms a little better than previous search engines, the end result - today's Google phenomenon - emerged out of that code on its own when it was put to use by millions of humans creating and accessing billions of websites.

It is not that Google does something on an entirely different plane from other searches. Rather, it was lucky enough to be the most successful instantiation of what was likely an inevitable development: the mass movement of humans toward making an ever larger portion of human knowledge readily available and easily accessible.

This gets around the limits of our traditional knowledge depositories, libraries, which have generally relied heavily on static book media, and which have generally required large amounts of human effort to access any available knowledge (as well as being limited to a particular spatial location). The technological service Google offers has changed things, and it will continue to change things, and so I will grant that what has come out of it really is an important cultural phenomenon, as Phil argues.

However, I disagree with the argument that Google is not a company. Google recently sent a cease and desist letter (read: monetary threat) to Booble, a pornographic parody site (which made clear from the beginning its non-association with Google and obvious parody nature).

A cease and desist letter is something companies send. It is something one finds among corporations which have a financial interest in keeping control over abstract things like trademarks. Google may be a cultural icon, but so are Pepsi and Coke (seriously, imagine the state of beverage consumption today had these soft drink mega-corps never existed). They can still be companies, though - they are still aiming for the bottom line, even if the CEOs honestly believe they are trying to make things better.

Google may be made up of cool, smart, interesting people. From the little hints I have caught about their staff via accounts at BoingBoing, I suppose they don't seem like typical CEOs at a big financial firm. But Google is still a company, and if we ever forget that, we are begging to be abused.

What Sprite wants more than anything else is to sell people on the idea that Sprite is an ideology, that it is a lifestyle, that it is a statement, or an un-statement - they want us to believe it is anything but another brand-label on bottles of overpriced sugar water. What MTV wants more than anything else is to sell people on the idea that MTV is an ideology, that it is a lifestyle, that it is a statement, or an un-statement - they want us to believe it is anything but product placement ads for big music industry labels.

In the age of savvy, cynical consumers hip to old marketing tricks, companies today seek above all else to convince us that they are not companies; and while the staff at Google may have no such intentions, the same dangerous effect arises regardless of the creators' intentions. When we forget that companies are companies, we open ourselves up to the most invasive form of marketing invented: the kind of marketing that is not recognized by the audience as marketing. Google's people may not be all about money, but considering that they have decided to go public, it would be surprising if the shareholders did not exert influence towards monetary goals over the more worthwhile contributions underlying Google - the things that helped turn it into a phenomenon.

I'm all for embracing and cannibalizing the innovation that Google offers, but I urge not to equate these innovations with Google qua brandname, with Google qua company. Because Google is a brandname, and it is a company, regardless of its other aims and achievements. The team that created Google may have had the best of intentions, but just as their code grew into a phenomenon much larger than an enhanced search algorithm, Google as a company has become something more than the individuals that invented it.

Fuck Google. Power to the people behind Google.

Originally Written: 02-07-04
Last Updated: 04-27-04