Is Google good or evil?

Is Google good or is it evil? Is the company an all-knowing behemoth that is hubristically “transforming our lives”, big brother-style, with its intrusive technology or is it a plucky, selfless Silicon Valley start-up that is “audaciously” organizing all the world’s information for all of our benefit? Is Google Orwell or is it Disney?

The answer might depend on whether you trust the marketing instincts of English or American publishers. Last Tuesday, I was in London to do a debate at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) with the New York Times reporter and prolific Silicon Valley based author Randall Stross who has just written a highly informative and strictly unbiased new book about Google called Planet Google. Stross’ main point is that Google – through its ubiquitous search engine artificial algorithm, Google Earth and Google Sky maps, G-mail email service, YouTube videos, Google Book Search, Google’s Android mobile phone and its myriad of other knowledge initiatives – has one simple goal: to manage all the world’s information. Stross even notes that Dr Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO and PhD-in-chief (UC Berkeley 1982), has run the math and concluded that it will take the company exactly 300 years to index and search all the information in the world.

So does Stross argue that this makes Google good or evil? It may all depend on whether you buy Planet Google in the US or UK. In America, the book (published by Free Press) comes with the cheerful subtitle One Company’s Audacious To Organize Everything We Know; while its British publisher (Atlantic Books) have given the same book the much more ominous subtitle How One Company is Transforming Our Lives. Identical book, identical author, identical information, same one company -- but an entirely different vibe about what Google is really up to.

This Anglo-American ambivalence over Google reflects, I suspect, our universal ambivalence about Google. The truth -- and even on planet Google there remain truths -- is that Google’s greed for knowledge is both thrillingly audacious and terrifyingly threatening.  Google is, in fact, a co Orwell-Disney production. The company wants to know everything about us so that it can help us in every way. Room 101, then, on planet Google, is a brightly lit, cheerful place where we can, at a click of a mouse, know all there is know about ourselves, our neighbors and the world.

Is this what we’ve always wanted or what we’ve always feared? Is planet Google a nightmare or is it a dream?

According to Randall Stross, Google is beyond good and evil. In his book, he explains that the numerati at Google are meticulously organizing their mission to become organizers of all the world’s information. Eric Schmidt has worked out that between 2 and 3% of today’s information about the world is searchable -- but that in 300 years time, 100% of this information will have been sorted and indexed by Google. By 2308, then, we really will be living on Schmidt’s planet Google. And I am simultaneously relieved and rather miffed – yes, that all-too-typical ambivalence about Google -- that I won’t be around to observe this peculiarly familiar new world.