Google’s Media Masterpiece with a Changing Canvas

27 02 2010

We all are familiar with the term. If you are reading this, I would be willing to bet money that you know what Google is or at least have heard the name before. Having just finished reading a very engaging and insightful book by Ken Auletta, titled Googled The End of the World as We Know It, I now see the most powerful search engine in a new light.

I will not even attempt to summarize the entire scope of the book here. Please note however that it is an interesting read that is worth your time. That being said, there are several key factors which surface throughout the book that are worthy of exploration.

First, is the issue of privacy. Google serves a nearly unbridled desire – or is it need? – for people to access information. In turn, Google has built its business prominence upon this most basic premise, providing access to almost limitless information through the Internet. As more information is accessed online though, where does the differentiation between public and private information establish itself? One of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin, elaborated on privacy fears regarding user data that Google collects in the following excerpt with author:

“When asked why consumers should trust that Google would not abuse the private data it collects, Sergey Brin in 2007 told me that the fears people face are tied to distaste for advertising and to a fear of Big Brother, which is sometimes ‘irrational.’ He wondered: ‘How many people yesterday do you think had embarrassing information about them exposed as the result of some cookie? Zero. It never happens. Yes I’m sure thousands of people had their mail stolen yesterday…I do think it boils down to irrational fears that all of a sudden we’d do evil things (194).”

Herein lies the potential monster of a problem with this perspective. Although Google may not intend to do harm towards others but with the company’s incredibly expansive size, the potential for harm increases exponentially. Again, I do not think that Google is premised upon such mean spirited motivations. However, this quote reflects that one of Google’s founders seems as if he does not realize the influence, if it were so chosen, to eradicate user privacy through multiple media platforms.

Is this arrogance? I doubt it. Is it inexperience? Not quite. Rather, I think this insight is a result of so much new ground being plowed by Google that even one of the founders is not sure how to interpret such implications. I wonder….would it be wise to interpret this as a sign that regulations should be in place to help mitigate the damage or reduce the likelihood of data release IF a company like Google were to go rogue?? The potentially catastrophic results from this what if scenario could serve as a bellwether towards the eradication of online privacy.

Second, the semblance of innocence exhibited by Google’s founders wears thin by the end of the book. In many ways, the two founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, come across as intelligent, caring leaders who happen to make extraordinarily good business decisions as if by pure luck. This seems like a kosher argument for a company that uses the rallying cry “Do no evil.” to supposedly guide company decisions. I bought into this idea for the majority of the book, I freely admit. However, the truth surfaces when pieces fall into place towards the end of Auletta’s work. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told the author in a rather candid admission that Google is not just a search engine, it is a company using calculated maneuvers to garner major control across the entire media industry. One of the most fundamental components of this effort centers on advertising dollars. The more ways Google can secure these funds, the more power and flexibility Google has to direct how an entire industry operates. Paraphrasing Schmidt’s words, Auletta wrote, “Google wants to be the agent that sells the ads on all distribution platforms, whether it is print, television, radio, or the Internet (294).”

Finally, a quote by Larry Page from 2002 exemplifies the idea what search means in relation to Google’s business strategy. While speaking to a class at Stanford University, Page articulated his belief that “If you can solve search, that means you can answer any question. Which means you can do basically anything (322).” This reflection is a powerful one. Keeping in mind the aforementioned innocence and play on luck Page and Brin seem to showcase throughout their careers, this quote speaks volumes behind the real ambition driving the engine of Google’s future. Both founders realize the transformative power their company oozes. The search component of their company has become the building block to an entire media empire that is expanding rapidly into various corners of the media landscape from television and cellular phones to online advertising and book publishing. The result of this strategy is causing significant waves in ways media is made and consumed. Regardless if the affects of these efforts are positive or negative, it seems increasingly clear these affects are by no means the result of luck.

Changing Journalism for Better or Worse

12 02 2010

The media industry in the United States that you and I experience on a daily basis has morphed from its existence a generation ago. However, when analyzing how these changes have occurred, whether they are good or bad and for whom, much debate ensues.

One prime example of such perspectives can be found in Robert McChesney’s book The Political Economy of Media. It is within this text that McChesney lays down his case that the journalism industry in the United States is tremendously flawed, off-balanced and in many ways failing. He provides numerous reasons why this evolution of the journalism industry is so calamitous and paints a disheartening picture for the future of not just journalism but democracy, since they are closely related, if nothing is done to arrive at a solution. Although McChesney assigns blame to numerous situations and institutions, I will focus on a couple that I believe are of great significance.

Deregulation is presented as a topic of grave concern relating to journalism, as the tendency for business interests to trump journalistic motivations occur when fewer rules are in place. In turn, media power becomes isolated among a fewer number of large media conglomerates which drowns out competition. McChesney argues that the government is the only safeguard that can prevent this scenario from occurring rampantly.

The flip side to this argument, that McChesney alludes to, is to allow the marketplace to evolve as it may with the belief that it is a self-regulating entity ensuring the best outcome for all concerned parties. Based upon the evidence presented in Chapter 1 and Chapter 5, along with my personal observations of the media industry, it seems the media industry is much more concerned with and tempted by shareholder influence than providing for the public good. In light of the Enron and WorldCom corporate debacles, where journalists largely failed to report upon the illegal activities of corporate leaders, a weakness of the modern journalism industry was highlighted. McChesney makes it clear that due to the profit pressures in journalism today it is the industry’s “…inability to provide criticism of the system as a whole-even when it was well deserved-[that] is an inherent flaw of professional journalism (51).” One hypothetical scenario from rampant media deregulation is that the public loses all respect for the industry, resulting in a new outcrop of smaller, independent media production outlets. However, a potential difficulty can arise from this scenario as well.

If journalism as has traditionally been known is dissolved into a plethora of smaller, isolated media sources, the risk for cognitive dissonance rears its ugly head. Psychologist Leon Festinger devised the idea behind cognitive dissonance in that people desire to reduce dissonance as much as possible in their lives. To do this, people establish a belief and seek only information that aligns with their personal beliefs while strictly avoiding influence from any differing lines of thought. The end result from this is largely ignorance through the inability to be exposed to a diversity of perspectives.

The potential ignorance resulting from the multiplication of these pseudo-journalistic echo chambers leads me to reflect upon my parent’s generation. During the 1950s and 1960s, journalism resulted from a more limited number of sources that were largely trusted and much less pressured by profits than the current industry. These limited resources forced anyone who desired to have an idea of what was happening in the world to tune in and, by default, be exposed to a greater degree of differing views and opinions. If this was a positive or negative attribute for journalism is a matter of opinion. One thing is clear though: journalism is not what it was a generation ago.