Several things set this Companion apart from other reference books. The most striking is the sheer breadth of its range, containing as it does a huge variety of regional and geographical entries, and contributors have been found to provide extensive entries for Africa, Oceania and Scandinavia, areas which are hardly ever covered in histories or encyclopedias of this kind. As well as individual biographies, and lucid entries (even for technophobes such as myself) on every possible technical aspect of photography, there is also a strong emphasis on photography as a social practice. There are entries on the economics of photography (tourism, advertising, fashion, and the news media for example), on photography’s infrastructure (societies, journals and training establishments); on the role of photography in politics (see entries on propaganda, the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and ‘struggle photography’ in South Africa); and on the emotive and even magical implications of photography, ‘involving questions of power, identity and kinship,
M ICHAEL P ROWSE A SITE TO BEHOLD
T HE G OOGLE S TORY
By David A Vise, with Mark Malseed (Macmillan 326pp £14.99)
I N 1998, S ERGEY Brin and Larry Page dropped out of a PhD programme at Stanford University to develop the commercial potential of their Internet search engine, Google. They had no capital, and no idea how Internet search could be turned into a profitable business. Six years later, having seen off competition from the likes of Yahoo and Microsoft, they floated the company at $85 per share, raising nearly $2bn in the largest ever initial public offering of a technology company. Today, Google stock is trading at more than $350 per share. Brin and Page each have a net worth well in excess of $10bn, and the company they founded dominates the rapidly growing global market for Internet search. As an object lesson in how to translate a technical idea into cash, the Google story has few, if any, precedents: even Bill Gates had to work longer and harder for his money. By the late 1990s, savvy investors were beginning to grasp the centrality of knowledge or information to the functioning of the global economy. So the ex-Stanford students were clearly doing the right thing at the right time and in the right place. But even allowing for this, the Google story has a fairy-tale quality: who could have imagined that the seemingly mundane business of searching for information by clicking buttons on computers could yield such fantastic economic rewards, and so quickly?
the creation of myths, the shaping (or masking) of memories, and the invasion of private or sacred spaces’. Then there are the plates – 48 pages of colour and 250 black-and-white half-tones – many of them reproducing photographs that have never been published before, all of them immaculately printed. Opening the pages at random I come across ‘Marthe in the garden, 1900–1’, by the painter Pierre Bonnard, who began photographing in the 1890s; an exquisite 1903 platinum print by Frederick Evans, showing the steps of Wells Cathedral; and the luminous and haunting colour print of an underground river, from the 1999 Tunnel Series taken by the Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama – every one of them good enough to eat. The Ongoing Moment and the Oxford Companion to the Photographare wonderful companion pieces, and a welcome sign that photography is – at last – achieving its rightful status as a major art form in this country. To order these books, see order form on page 78
The Google phenomenon is an American story. It is hard to imagine it happening anywhere else, in part because the young entrepreneurs’ success depended on a great deal more than their own technical and business flair. As if to illustrate the importance of education for the Internet economy, Brin and Page come from intellectually, though not financially, privileged backgrounds.
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006 GENERAL
Their parents knew nothing about business but both fathers were university professors (in mathematics and computer science) and both mothers worked in fields related to computing and technology. So while Brin and Page attended ordinary public-sector schools, they became sophisticated users of computers as young children. And they shone as undergraduates partly because their families valued educational attainment above all else. Even after Google’s flotation, Brin’s mother was still urging her billionaire son to return to Stanford and complete his PhD. Once at Stanford, they were beneficiaries of one of America’s greatest economic strengths: the porous interface that links top-flight academic institutions, the venture capital industry, and high-tech business. As David Vise and Mark Malseed explain, Google might not have achieved so much but for the early backing of two of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalist firms – Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. These firms took the gamble of investing heavily in Google even though its headstrong young founders insisted on maintaining full control of their company – despite their business illiteracy. Crucially, however, they persuaded Brin and Page to appoint an experienced chief executive: Eric Schmidt from the software-maker Novell. Schmidt proved a perfect foil for Brin and Page: while they focused on the technical challenges of search, he ensured that Google acquired the managerial and financial structures essential in any rapidly growing small business. Brin and Page were also lucky in the timing of their launch. When the dotcom bubble burst in 1999, they were a rare commodity in Silicon Valley: a debt-free Internet start-up with an apparently limitless potential for growth. As companies went bust around them, they were able to hire talented engineers and mathematicians relatively cheaply – which would not have been easy in a firmer labour market. The Stanford drop-outs always insisted that they were motivated primarily by the intellectual challenge of perfecting an Internet search engine, rather than by the prospect of making money. Yet had their orientation been academic, they would probably be Stanford professors today. In the event, the challenge of turning search into a money-spinner presented an ethical conundrum. Their competitors were making profits by selling advertising. They used flashy banner ads, and they corrupted the search process: if businesses were willing to pay extra, search engines would ensure that their websites kept popping up in web crawls.
Nerds in the foam
But Brin and Page were nerdy idealists. There was a lot about capitalism they did not like. They did not want to make money in this underhand way. They knew they had to rely on advertising because it would be uneconomic to charge users for searches. But they wanted users to know the search process was unbiased. The model they hit on was that pioneered by newspapers. Everyone knows the New York Times sells advertising but nobody thinks the editorial copy is tainted by the ads. Brin and Page wanted a simi
lar demarcation between advertising and editorial copy in their business. But it was tricky to achieve because the ads had to be linked to the search results. The appeal of the search engines was that they were offering a sharply focused medium for advertising: they were giving advertisers a chance to display their wares at the very moment consumers had signalled their interest by initiating a search. Their solution was a rigid demarcation of their on-screen pages: ads, described as ‘sponsored links’, appeared on the right-hand side, in small understated textboxes, and search results appeared on the left-hand side. The position of the ads depended on two factors: how much companies were willing to pay for them, and how often users clicked on them (this was Brin and Page’s attempt to democratise advertising). But companies could not influence the search results on the left-hand side. The model worked brilliantly. Indeed, it was a trifle devious for a pair of idealists: the text-only ‘sponsored links’ were so understated that many Google users never even realised that every search produced as much advertising as it did information. And money: whenever someone anywhere in the world clicks a sponsored link, 50 cents or so flows into Google’s coffers. It may not sound much, but when you have hundreds of millions of customers clicking every day, it soon adds up. Vise and Malseed do not make predictions for Google: that would be unwise given how fast fortunes can change in the Internet economy. But Brin and Page have embarked on two huge projects. They want to increase massively the store of on-line, and hence searchable, information by digitalising some 50m books from the world’s leading academic libraries. And they want to use Google’s computing power (which exceeds that available to any government) to help unravel the secrets of the human genome. The projects illustrate the heady mix of ambition and idealism that has characterised Google from the start; whether they will prove as profitable as instant Internet search only time can tell.
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006