Can Alphabet Ever Mean as Much as Google Does?

Original image: PMillera4 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Google surprised pretty much everyone today when they announced that, well, they weren’t going to be Google anymore.

Google CEO Larry Page (well, former CEO) said in a statement today that he and Google co-founder Sergey Brin would form a new holding company, Alphabet (with the best domain name on Earth: abc.xyz), of which Google would now be a wholly-owned subsidiary, led by Sundar Pichai, who until today was Google’s head of Android and Chrome.

I have some immediate concerns about it, but I should stipulate I’ve only known about this for a couple of hours. Before I get into that, a bit more on what Alphabet is, and what Google is – and no longer is. Page explained how Google would now be one company among many, each focusing on particular areas and industries that were all once housed under the Google banner:

What is Alphabet? Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main internet products contained in Alphabet instead. What do we mean by far afield? Good examples are our health efforts: Life Sciences (that works on the glucose-sensing contact lens), and Calico (focused on longevity). Fundamentally, we believe this allows us more management scale, as we can run things independently that aren’t very related.

… Alphabet will also include our X lab, which incubates new efforts like Wing, our drone delivery effort. We are also stoked about growing our investment arms, Ventures and Capital, as part of this new structure.

I should point out first that I don’t have any problem with the idea of a wholesale reorganization of Google. Giving each disparate aspect of the company its own territory, its share of breathing room, could very well be exactly what they need to thrive. I can’t say one way or the other, but it certainly seems that Larry Page, who lusts to be ruler of a magical libertarian island, at the very least could not be content to be the head of a mere search engine company. And Sundar Pichai, though I find him a little frustrating as a spokesperson for his company, is obviously doing wonderful things, as I can only personally attest by my wholesale embrace of Android over the past year and my admiration and fascination with the Chrome OS. So, functionally, this sounds more or less positive.

My concern is more about what Google means to the culture. In a more crass sense, I suppose my concern is over things like “branding” and “marketing,” but I also think it’s about something a little bigger. In the same way that Apple, in the minds of millions and millions of people, stands for something grander and more esoteric than being a really good gadget company, Google is more than a search engine and browser company.

When people think of Google (or at least when people who think about this kind of thing think of Google), the association goes far beyond their products and services, far beyond search results and targeted ads. It’s about all the other stuff, the (gag) “moonshots”: bringing Internet access to the developing world from the air, building automated vehicles to revolutionize transportation, the attempts to lengthen the freaking human life span. All of that, along with Android and Fiber and Chrome and Nexus and everything else.

Now, a whole lot of that, the boldest, craziest, and most out-there, will now be Alphabet. Google, though it will no doubt continue to do great things within its newly confined realm, won’t get the benefit of that association. And Alphabet won’t get the benefit of being Google in name. It’ll be an uphill battle for this new thing to win that kind of mindshare. The insiders will know, I suppose, the tech press of today will more easily make this psychological transition. But for all of those who are just observers or enthusiasts, or even for those who are simply too young to have a long association with Google, there’s an ethos that could be lost.

I could be really wrong. But if it were me, I’d do the reorganization under the Google banner, let the restructuring be an insiders’ story, and keep the (gag) moonshot mojo under the old name.

As Ye Live, So Shall Ye Google

Image by Shutterstock.
In American counties considered the easiest in which to live, cameras, iPad apps, and jogging are among the subjects that residents are googling for. In the hardest counties to live in, it’s diabetes, guns, and the Antichrist. This is according to an analysis by the New York Times which used its own metrics to determine what the easiest and hardest places to live were, and then partnered with Google to determine what search terms correlated most strongly. Some of the results as reported by David Leonhardt at the Times are surprising to say the least.

But first let’s get one aspect of this straight. What this report does not say is that in the hardest places to live the Antichrist is the thing most Googled for, nor are digital cameras the top search queries for Easy Street. It is saying that these search terms correlated most strongly to the counties in question. Common searches are common searches across the board, so at the moment I am typing this, things like “Little League World Series” and “Rick Perry” are among the terms dominating Google search at the national level, and we can assume that they are doing so even in the hardest and easiest-going counties alike.

There is little that can be inferred definitively from the Times report, but it’s very telling that when life is less stressful, one has more freedom to think about things like digital photography, and when life is a trial, one’s mind turns to weapons and eternal retribution for whatever one plans on doing with those weapons.

All this said, here are some things that struck me:

  • It is not merely that Easy Street dwellers are into digital cameras, but that they are interested in specific models, such as the Canon Elph and other point-and-shoots, which then makes me wonder how easy their lives can really be if they’re even considering Elphs and not just a decent smartphone with a decent camera. Have they not heard of these yet?
  • One may be tempted to tie a high rate of searches for the Antichrist and guns together as some sort of wish for the End Times infesting the culture, but also consider that “severe itching” is also on that list, which I think makes many of the other searches much more understandable.
  • “Dog Benadryl” is also on the list for the hardest places to live, which, despite the “severe itching,” raises more questions than it answers.
  • Among the search terms for the easiest places to live was the 2001 Ben Stiller film Zoolander, which frankly makes me question the veracity of this entire project. No one, whether their lives be easy or difficult, should be spending any time thinking about that.
  • The greatest tragedy to emerge from all of this? According to Leonhardt, “Searches on some topics, like Oprah Winfrey or the Super Bowl, are popular almost everywhere.”

We have so far to go.

EU’s “Right to Be Forgotten” Hits Wikipedia, Blocking the Memory of the Web

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In May, the European Union’s top court made the controversial ruling that search engines were responsible for upholding a so-called “right to be forgotten,” compelling Google, Bing, Yahoo, and others to cease indexing and displaying links to web pages that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” to a person making a complaint. This is not globally enforceable, of course, and applies only to the EU court’s jurisdiction.

Today, the Wikimedia Foundation, of which Wikipedia is a part, reported that its pages were among those being removed from Google’s indexes, and let it be known they were not pleased. In a blog post today their legal representatives wrote (with emphasis mine):

As of July 18, Google has received more than 91,000 removal requests involving more than 328,000 links; of these, more than 50% of the URLs processed have been removed. More than fifty of these links were to content on Wikipedia.

That’s only the beginning of the problem, as the only reason the Wiki folks even know about these removals is because Google tells them, of their own volition.

Search engines have no legal obligation to send such notices. Indeed, their ability to continue to do so may be in jeopardy. Since search engines are not required to provide affected sites with notice, other search engines may have removed additional links from their results without our knowledge. This lack of transparent policies and procedures is only one of the many flaws in the European decision.

Since search engines are under no obligation to let anyone know what they’re not showing users, users have no way of knowing what they’re missing, or that there’s anything to miss. That’s the idea of the new rule, really, to “erase the memory” of the Internet to uphold some twisted notion of “fairness.”

Wikimedia’s executive director Lila Tretikov, in a separate post today, explained the stakes:

[T]he European court abandoned its responsibility to protect one of the most important and universal rights: the right to seek, receive, and impart information. As a consequence, accurate search results are vanishing in Europe with no public explanation, no real proof, no judicial review, and no appeals process. The result is an internet riddled with memory holes—places where inconvenient information simply disappears.

A few days ago, I wrote about the concept of fairness versus compassion in software, an idea of Ben Brooks’. The gist was that “fairness” is where decisions are made with the lowest common denominator in mind in order to appeal to every possible use case, and “compassion” is where products and solutions are developed on a case-by-case basis, with each product fulfilling a limited set of needs, and doing so very well, at the expense of other needs, which are served by other products. Fairness gets you Microsoft Word, full of features for every possible scenario but also byzantine and bloated, and compassion gets you OmWriter, simplified with a small set of tools that will integrate extremely well with a small set of users.

It seems to me that the European Court was trying to be fair. There is a chance that a number of people may indeed be legitimate victims of content on the Web that is truly “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant,” and that this content is genuinely harmful to them, to no greater purpose. And that sucks. But it wasn’t enough to simply act on the complaint in question (in this case, a Spanish man who wanted an auction listing from the 90s removed), so in all fairness, the Court decided that a blanket rule for such removals had to apply across the board, for every EU citizen, and for every search engine doing business there. To limit the scope of the case to one man wouldn’t be, to their minds, fair.

But that attempt at fairness has sacrificed compassion, compassion for the human beings who are now denied access to information once freely available, and who now have no way of knowing what it is they’re being denied. Opaque internal tribunals make the decisions on all of these cases, and as has been reported, there are at least tens of thousands of them, and likely far more. Compassion would have had individual cases of serious merit addressed, but fairness has harmed, potentially, everyone in the EU.

And the fact that it’s hitting Wikipedia of all sites so hard makes it all the more salient. Wikipedia, like the Web itself, has grown organically to become the very historical memory of the Internet. Like a real person’s memory, it is flawed and prone to gross human error, but also the has benefit of human ingenuity and imagination, and we rely on it for better or worse. Google and other search engines are largely how we find everything on the Web, including Wikipedia. It’s like cutting off the neural connections to memories that are stored in your brain, they’re there, but you now can’t access them because one of those memories is of something someone else would rather you forgot.

And think: couldn’t the right to be forgotten apply to physical media? Should we prune print encyclopedias and start rummaging through libraries with pairs of scissors, hunting for information deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”?

Perhaps Wikimedia’s public stance will help generate some movement against the “right to be forgotten.” It’s one thing to wave people off of stupid things one might have done on an auction 20 years ago. But blocking off access to the memory of the Web might finally make people anxious.

UPDATE: Tim Farley has some important advice to anyone who makes content on the Web regarding this issue that he put in the comments:

I’ve recently spoken about this issue on both the Skepticality podcast and the Virtual Skeptics webcast. You correctly point out that nobody is required to pass along these notices. However, Google is in fact notifying webmasters when they get a request affecting your website! Bloggers and webmasters need to be aware of this. If you commonly critique European people or companies on your site, then you should make sure you are properly registered with Google Webmaster Tools. Otherwise Google has no way to send you these notifications.