Every day, hundreds of millions of people use Google. New Yorker writer Ken Auletta's Googled documents the company's rise from a tangle of computers in a garage (at the exact same time, Auletta gleefully notes, Bill Gates told a reporter, "I fear someone in a garage who is doing something completely new") to the most prominent player on the internet's stage. Other authors have tried to record exactly how the company transformed the web from a jagged collection of sex sites and LiveJournals to an indexed, delineated landscape, but Auletta's unprecedented access to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as well as company CEO Eric Schmidt, makes this a comprehensive corporate biography.
Like most journalists, Auletta is clearly enthralled with the idea of Google, but he retains enough of a distance to see the company's failings. Al Gore is quoted in the book as admiring Brin and Page, but believing that Apple CEO Steve Jobs, by contrast, is "a genius... [who] comes along only once in several generations." Auletta seems to share this perspective, imagining Google's founders as highly intelligent engineers who are nonetheless burdened with all the weird, single-minded faults common to engineers (Brin and Page couldn't understand, for instance, why people were reticent about user-specific ads in their Gmail). It's a brisk, entertaining history with plenty of juicy anecdotes but surprisingly little weight, because it was written too early in the company's life. Auletta spends about a fifth of the book wondering how Google will eventually fall, when the answer, right now, is unknowable; it's undoubtedly still being developed in a garage somewhere.
Googled is subtitled The End of the World as We Know It, which is a fitting title for a book about the company—Google changed our conception of information and ideas forever—but Auletta doesn't quite earn it. That title should have been reserved for technologist and virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier's new book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, a small, thin book whose misleading title unfortunately evokes a clench-jawed Adbusters-style anti-iPod rant. Instead, Lanier asks some important questions that Auletta should have considered. Lanier is not some stuffy Luddite; he praises the creation of the desktop computer file as "a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh," but he refutes the hoary (and Google-friendly) internet axiom that information wants to be free by saying: "Information doesn't deserve to be free... what if information is inanimate? What if it's even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?"
Lanier observed firsthand the creation of the pre-Google untamed web, and he praises it as a monumental, optimistic, pro-human development. But he is concerned about the direction of the internet in the days since; he believes that the borrowing culture of blogs, social media, and file sharing—a video from here, a song from there, some words from someone else over here, and all of it for free—is leading to a cultural stagnation, wherein all anyone ever does is remix preexisting popular culture again and again. Lanier believes that creators need to be fairly compensated for the culture to continue, and the current internet framework makes fair payment unworkable. He offers thoughtful solutions that would be unattractive to internet consumers—for example, he prefers the idea of micropayments for each use of a song, text, or video on the internet, channeled through a universal, government-funded pay-wall system. All of Lanier's solutions may not be practical, but Gadget is an essential first step at harnessing a post-Google world.
Journalism was one of the first industries to be demolished by Google's rise. In their book The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols don't place all the blame at Google's feet, of course—newspaper readership has been on the decline in America for decades, mostly due to greed and lackluster management—but they take the pervasive free culture of the modern internet into account.
Journalism is a sweeping manifesto that looks at the current crisis of American journalism from just about every angle. It proves that the founding fathers considered a free media to be one of the pillars of our society, and that they subsidized the press in order to keep it accessible to everyone. Like Lanier, McChesney and Nichols come to some unpopular conclusions. They suggest heavy government subsidization of the newspaper industry (including but not limited to cheap postal rates, tax credits, an AmeriCorps-like army of young journalists, and the adoption of a new low-profit limited-liability company model) and offer ways for the internet's free absorption of news stories to continue (any paper to receive certain government subsidies would offer its stories to the public domain immediately on publication, serving the greater public good). Their examples optimistically ignore certain truths in pursuit of a greater cause—for instance, the authors hold Seattle Times editorial-page editor Ryan Blethen up as a model of a great newspaperman, when his Times has devolved into a shadow of what a good newspaper should be. But these are forgivable lapses; unlike the countless depressing articles about the death of the media that have come before, Journalism is an uplifting call to action.
In many ways, the world is still economically and philosophically readjusting to the internet. For years, journalists and artists have been told that if they give their content away for free, the market will provide for them somehow. The recession has proved that belief to be unfounded. Six years after a couple of more-intelligent-than-average engineers changed the world from their garage, a handful of forward-thinking authors are finally figuring out how to adapt.