Googling the Computer Revolution

If you think personal computers haven’t changed American society, try to remember life before them. Or, even better, try telling your kids how you lived with rotary telephones, libraries, and regular mail.

One reason we rely so heavily on computers for information is the search-engine company: Google, Inc., which turns 11 years old on September 15th.

To get a perspective on the changes wrought by computers, consider how J. R. Pierce described the operation of a computer in his 1961 Post article, “How Smart Are Computers?”

“The first requirement in using a computer is to put appropriate binary numbers into the core memory. This is usually done in a sequence of steps. The numbers are first written on a sheet of paper, punched into cards, and transcribed to magnetic tape, from which the computer reads them into its memory. At the end of a computation the results, having been stored in the computer’s memory, are printed out on magnetic tape.”

Other than the use of computer memory, every part of this process has changed. But Pierce was describing computers that had barely evolved from their origins as a calculator. He knew that computers were capable of far greater tasks, but scientists would first have to study humans.

“The study of human anatomy, physiology and psychology is fascinating and rewarding, but I can scarcely believe it will tell us directly and in detail how to make computers perform complicated tasks any more than a study of horses would tell us how to make an automobile. Indeed, it may be more plausible to assume that we will learn about human beings by programming the computers to do more complicated tasks.”

Seven years later, John Kobler’s article, “The Flip-Flop Machines,” observed that computers still existed on the margins of American life. “Comparatively few people have ever seen a computer,” he notes. “There are only about 40,000 in the country today (up from 100 since the 50s).” The computers of his time were still massive machines that bore a family resemblance to ENIAC—the first generation of general-use computers, which “weighed 30 tons, occupied 1,800 square feet of floor space and consumed huge amounts of power.”

But the computers of 1968 had advanced far from their calculator ancestors. They were now being used in military planning and surveillance, political campaigning, and education. More applications beckoned, but the fears of computerization were starting to rise among professionals. Kobler cites two views:

1. “Dr. Norbert Wiener, the late M.I.T. mathematical genius: ‘Automation [based on computers] will produce an unemployment situation in comparison to which the Depression of the 1930s will seem like a pleasant joke.’”

2. “Dr. Yale Brozen, economics professor at the University of Chicago: ‘Automation should be welcomed as the means for alleviating poverty and undoing the damage done by bad wage laws and improper union-employer agreements. It should not be feared as a job destroyer. It is a job creator.’”

Bringing Order to Digital Chaos

Certainly computers have proven their abilities to create wealth, though the past is liberally strewn with failed enterprises. Google is a shining exception. Until Google, Internet searches worked on the same principle as the phone book (that antiquated block of paper that reliably serves as a booster seat for children.) Search engines simply matched your query term to Web pages containing the same term in their titles. Editors had to hunt down Web pages for specific categories. All was well for a while. The Internet wasn’t that popular yet, and so it seemed reasonable to categorize and document every site on the Internet. How many Star Trek fan sites could there possibly be?

The answer was greater than anyone could have imagined. During the Internet gold rush of 1996, the population of the Internet increased by leaps and bounds, proliferated with Star Trek sites, bookstores, stock traders, and appliance dealers. The Internet exploded from a small set of pages in specialized areas to the fountain of knowledge we enjoy today. There was a problem, though. Nobody had the foggiest idea of how to actually make the ocean of data useable for an average human being. The search engines that existed at the time did an acceptable job, but the data was getting too great—and too complex—to be reviewed, categorized, and documented by a human programmer. Until Google …

Its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, solved the problem of navigating through the swelling ocean of digital information. Their idea was to display the list of Web sites—which could be immensely long—based on how many other Web sites linked to them.

They assumed that a Web site was more informative based on the number of Web sites that referred to it. It seems like an obvious idea for ranking information, but it was revolutionary at the time.

Making Money from Providing Directions

Today, Google is the king. It enjoys more than 50 percent market share of the Internet search industry, which nets them about $4 billion dollars annually in profits. Yahoo, their closest competitor, has only half of Google’s market share and makes only about $400 million annually.

The money doesn’t come from searches. Google really only has one business: advertising. Before Google, advertisements appeared on Web sites with little apparent pattern. Advertisers didn’t know how to reach the markets they wanted, so they put up ads wherever they could.

In contrast, Google knows what you want. You’ve told them by putting it in their search box. Google used your query to summon related advertising. Businesses gain an immediate connection to people who were most likely to be looking for their goods and services.

For example, search Google for “auto insurance,” and you’ll see links to GEICO, SafeAuto, Travelers, and Progressive alongside the Google-ranked results.

Not only does Google match businesses to users’ queries, but it performs this task without requiring human editors. It has also automated the process by which businesses bid against each other for premium positions on the Web page.

Consumers also benefit from this arrangement. Advertisement and business links are far less annoying when they’re relevant to what you want. And many pages offer no advertising at all.

Moreover, the income from advertisers allows Google to provide many free services, like Gmail and Google News. Free services get more people in the door and boost the population that advertisers reach. Google understands this, and it is why almost all of Google’s services are completely free to consumers.

Is Big Google Watching You?

Yet for all the goodwill Google has created through free services and its corporate philanthropy, it has still drawn detractors. Privacy advocates are worried about how much information Google can get from you. After all, Google has access to the information flowing through the services they sponsor. Gmail can give them your e-mail address. Google Voice can give them your voicemail, phone numbers, and phone records. Google Payments can give them access to data about your bank accounts and credit cards. And all of this can be tied to your main Google account. Now Google is trying to enter the business of managing digitized medical records. Many are concerned that Google could become an information monopoly, but to date, Google has shown sufficient respect for personal privacy.

What happens if the United States government steps in? Is that a good thing or a bad thing for consumers? How does that affect the Internet as a whole? The answers to these questions will determine the fate of Google over the next 11 years.

John Rozewicki contributed to this article.