It’s incredible that it took just 18 years for Google -- the company reached this milestone of adulthood on Sept. 27 -- to create a market capitalization of more than $530 billion. It’s perhaps even more amazing to recall how the search engine has changed life as we know it.
Google, now a unit of holding parent company Alphabet Inc., began in Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s Stanford University dorm in 1998 before campus officials asked them to find a real office after the Stanford IT department complained Page and Brin’s were sucking up all the university’s bandwidth.
By the time I joined the company in November of 2001, it was apparent that we were changing the world. As an early employee at Google -- the second attorney hired there -- there were times when shivers ran up my spine thinking about what we were building. Democratizing access to information, and bringing the real world online -- it was an inspiring place to be.
Having grown up in a working class neighborhood, I had to travel to an affluent neighborhood to access a good public library, spending countless Saturday afternoons with volumes of reference books to learn how to apply for financial aid to attend college. In those pre-Internet days, a good library and a kind-hearted librarian were my keys to advancement.
After the printing press, the first major democratization of access to information had been driven a century ago by steel baron Andrew Carnegie. He became the world’s richest man in the late 19th century and then gave it all away, donating $60 million to fund 1,689 public libraries across the United States. To my mind, Google took Carnegie’s vision of putting information in the hands of the general public and put it on steroids, creating a virtual library akin to those found only in sci-fi movies in 1998.
Google indexed the internet extraordinarily well without human intervention, unlike previously curated outlets such as Yahoo! or LexisNexis, and in such a way that the user did not have to know how to use the index or Boolean search methods. Google enabled free searches of words or terms, making all manner of information instantly retrievable even if you did not know where it was housed. With Google, you could find any needle in any haystack at any time. Unlocking that data has indeed been a great equalizer: any individual can arm him or herself with relevant information before seeing a doctor or applying for government assistance, housing or a job.
Getting archives online
Soon, Google could trivially retrieve any piece of data on the World Wide Web. Crucially, Google started indexing information that was previously offline, such as far-flung archives (imagine a very old text in a tower in Salamanca) to make that knowledge searchable. People’s photos and videos followed. Then, of course, Google cars began cruising and mapping our streets. That paired with GPS granted us all a new superpower -- being able to find our way in almost any small town or big city in the world.
Now Google is a global archive storing our history as it is made. It is as though a virtual world is being created right alongside our real world, a simulation of reality that grows more robust by the day. Because of Google, the creation and storage of information itself has expanded exponentially as people and scholars have access to information that enables them to make new discoveries. Those discoveries, in turn, are shared with the world thanks to the culture of sharing that has been central to the internet and Google’s philosophy. All this has sped the pace of discovery.
Of course, there have been casualties. Google has changed the business of newspapers forever and virtually single-handedly run most publishers of maps out of business. It transformed advertising, using and perfecting A/B testing to understanding our tastes and what makes a person click on an ad. Sometimes I worry that technology companies have become almost too good at this, building upon and applying these lessons to other ways of collectively sucking us into our devices more and more.
This access to information without the curation of trained journalists carries other costs too, leading to an internet rife with misinformation and untruth. Nowhere is that more evident today than in our rancorous U.S. presidential election, where it seems little value is placed on objectivity, making organizations such as factcheck.org essential reading. The growth of Google and the diminution of the role of the established media in our society at such crucial moments might cause Alexis de Tocqueville, who believed newspapers “ maintain civilization,” to turn in his grave.
One thing’s for sure: With Google, the future will bring the unexpected and sometimes delightful. Autonomous cars, robots, gesture-sensing fabrics, hands-free controls, modular cell phones and reimagined cities are among the projects that lie ahead for the search giant that even as it is one of the world’s largest companies, has maintained a startup culture at its offices, which now employ more than 61,000 people.
In breaking out beyond the constraints of the online world into the physical universe, Google has made us believe (and even expect) that when one is inspired by some great purpose, we can transcend limitations. Anything becomes possible.