| FEELING LUCKY: Cashing in on his retirement Edwards lives the high life in Paris |
Douglas Edwards has the relaxed air of a man who knows where his next meal is coming from. It is six years since he cleared his desk at Google and walked out with a sackful of money, having cashed in share options bought with a loan from his retired parents. How big a sack hes not saying.
Less than a decimal, a very small percentage, he offers, nursing a soft drink in a Parisian cafe. It was sufficient.
Hes talking about how much of Google he owned when it floated, and for very small percentage read millions of dollars. Edwards was the search engines marketing man from 1999 to 2005 and has chronicled its rise in a new book called Im Feeling Lucky. The title is a reference to the search option under the Google logo and the spirit of adventure that led him to swap a safe future in newspaper advertising for an uncertain one with a start-up company run by two students from Stanford University called Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
There was a gold-rush mentality in Silicon Valley, he remembers. Everybody saw people making tens of millions of dollars and launching new products. There was a lot of wealth that was generated, but more than that there was this excitement around the concept of the Internet. I just wanted to get my feet wet working for an Internet company. I thought Google would last for maybe a year and Id get some great experience and then go back to the newspaper. I kept waiting for them to go bankrupt and they never did, so I stuck around, says Edwards.
The phenomenon created by Brin and Page inspires awe and suspicion. Google, worth about 115 billion pounds, is that most powerful of products: one that insinuates itself into the fabric of daily life. Turn on your computer and the chances are that Google will be your home page. Google can handle your email, organise your social life or show you the front of your house. And all the while, Google is squirrelling away information about you, your preferences and peccadillos. No human being may be watching the keywords you enter on that screen, but Googles machines are. The company, which derives almost all its income from advertising, never throws information away, saving it for the day when it can be used to create more effective, targeted ads. A treasure trove of personal data that critics fear could one day be turned against us.
Dont be evil is Googles motto. Edwards, a Californian of liberal instincts, believes the company truly aspires to that simple injunction — but its power brings with it potential dangers. Privacy issues are an Achilles heel for Google. After 9/11, Sergey tried to find out if the terrorists had used Google to prepare for the attacks, and that raises the issue of identifying personal information within Googles search logs. Thats a sensitive topic, he says.
When the Patriot Act was passed in the US — allowing the government to access internet records and making it illegal for Google or other search providers to notify a user that the government had requested their data — that scared me. Any thinking person would have some hesitation about how much information is available in Googles logs. People think they are searching anonymously but there is no such thing as anonymity on the internet. I would probably be uncomfortable if my entire search history were laid out for the world to see. I think most people would be.
Such concerns lay in the distant future when Edwards accepted a 15,000 pounds pay cut to become Googles 59th employee. The company was born out of research by Brin and Page, resulting in an algorithm that took into account the popularity of a particular web page, as judged by links from other websites. In effect, the links were a vote of confidence in the quality of that web page. Previous search engines had based their results merely on the number of times the searched-for word appeared on a web page.
From the beginning, Brin and Page thought big. Googles selling point would be its technology: faster, better, always one step ahead. Brin and Page proved adept manipulators of the talent they recruited, combining ping-pong and free sushi with intimidating mind games.
Lets face it, Doug, a newly-hired manager confided to Edwards, Google hires really bright, insecure people and then applies sufficient pressure that no matter how hard they work, theyre never able to consider themselves successful. Meetings tended to end abruptly if the desired outcome proved elusive. Every day we would have to figure out how to do something because no one had done it before, says Edwards. Sergey and Larry almost always decided to take the risk. They were pretty fearless.
Intellectual self-confidence could spill over into arrogance. When were we ever wrong? inquired Page during one meeting. But occasionally they were. Users of Gmail were unimpressed when targeted ads showed up in their inboxes based on the contents of messages in the inbox. The process was deemed creepy, an invasion of privacy.
Googles decision in 2006 to censor its search service in China to placate the regime in Beijing was widely condemned, but Edwards denies it was driven solely by the desire to expand. Brin, in particular, was troubled by the concession due to his upbringing in the Soviet Union. If the company was slightly left at the beginning, its moved more to the centre, says Edwards. It has quite a few lobbyists in Washington now, and they have to deal with a split Congress.
Brin and Page were wary of the effects of sudden riches on their shareholding employees and discouraged excessive displays of wealth. But the companys growth has inevitably changed its character. Paul Adams, a senior designer who laid the foundations of the new Google Plus social networking site, resigned earlier this year citing increased bureaucracy and lack of access to higher management as one of the reasons for his departure.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, an American academic and author of The Googlization of Everything, says we must adopt a more sceptical approach to what is, after all, just another moneymaking outfit. The real danger of Google is how good it is to us, he says. Its power derives from reluctance to examine how it works. Google ordains how we live. It guides us through life with a boiled-down list. That list is the product of value judgments made when generating the algorithms that order search results. If users stick only to Google, they miss out on other sources of information. Reality becomes the first, or just possibly the second, page of their Google search.
Edwards left Google to spend more time with his family. He admits that years of dawn-to-dusk working resulted in some personal cost, and does not lament his decision to go. The money he made allowed him to concentrate on his wife and three children, and enjoy long holidays untroubled by emails at all hours — which is why he is in Paris. I dont think there is any question that Google has changed peoples lives, he says. If you look down the street there will be three people using Google on their phones for maps or email or looking for a restaurant. I dont see that diminishing. He can see the day when Google, knowing our preferences, will alert us to the presence of a particular restaurant just around the corner.
Current technology does not enable anyone to tell you whats the best restaurant for you, but Google and others are trying to determine that based on your patterns. That worries me. When they recommend whats best for you, it means they have a much more sophisticated understanding of you than you may wish them to have.