A couple years ago, I wrote a post called Google, Rome, and Empire. The gist of the article, of which I was very proud at the time, was that Google’s grand plan mirrored the structure of Roman roads in their build-out period, and that Google would unify its dozens of small properties with its five or six big ones by means of a single meta-service.
I envisioned this rich tapestry of services, obscure to monolithic, hooking in through engines and tools to a vastness of data and users, and, at the other end of the telescope, a single point of entry through which one would have instant access to everything from maps to obscure scientific results to the current price of tea. A bit like the real (or rather, idealized) empire, really: An assemblage of hamlets and metropoli, farms and academies, every citizen knowing that their via vicinale led to a via rustica, which led to a via publica, which led to Rome.
This constellation of services, this web of empowerment, resources, and variety. This bright future.
I’m feeling let down.
I’d like to think that I was at least not wrong the whole time. I think my optimism was warranted, just as I think their ambition was real. In a way, that ambition is intact. But it has been perverted. Google was like the Library of Babel: As near as infinite as the Internet age was likely to get. This mind-blowing edifice, bricks of information, mortared together with context, and gilded with accessibility. And they’re building it all so you’ll go to the gift shop.
I suppose I’m criticizing them for deciding to become a business rather than a public service. That was their choice to make, of course, but I think it’s safe to say their choice was a poor one. The Google of the early 2000s, globe-spanning and yet delighting in esoterica, was on its way to becoming a historic framework, Standard Oil crossed with Bell Labs. Not only that, it was crazy, starry-eyed: It was an asylum by and for the lunatics, a padded room big enough to hold the world.
What was it about being the connective tissue of the net that became so distasteful to Google? What was it that made them shutter project after project, things that could have lived out their natural lives for years on minimal resources, supported by a thankful and loving community in happy allegiance to the Google Empire?
Google+ was, as I saw it, a huge misstep, albeit a high-quality one. But other products, other “sunsets” (each less scenic than the last) hinted at a company growing not just sloppy, but callous. More wood behind fewer arrows, when the whole point of Google was that its quiver runneth over. Now, with the senseless shutdown of Reader (I won’t bore you with my own analysis; there’s plenty already (but take this)), I’m faced with how deliberate and tawdry the whole thing has become. God damn it, Google.
It’s not that we can’t move on from Reader — maybe its demise will even help with the rebirth of RSS, or whatever comes next, and make us really look at how ideas move around the Internet. And it’s not that I hate Google+, although I sure as hell don’t have to like it, either.
It’s like seeing your favorite fighter (I was going to say Ali, but Google doesn’t deserve him, even in simile) throw a match for the money. He’s no worse a fighter for it, but could you ever cheer for him again?
How can I be excited for Google Glass now? How can I be pumped for I/O or 3D Google Earth or a partnership with the Library of Congress, or anything they come up with? They’ve poisoned the well in the worst way; they made it clear that Google is worse than mercenary — it’s banal.
I can still be happy for what they’ve given us, and that’s not a little. They led the data-voracious of the world, spurred sluggish markets into action, and truly revolutionized (I don’t use the word lightly) the way we navigate data by changing what we think of as data (namely, everything). I can still follow the good works of the Maps and Books teams with approval or marvel a bit at the technical accomplishment of Glass, or thank them for their advocacy in Washington, though now it is without positive sentiment, like looking at the drawings some other person’s kids did at school.
Google’s greatest legacy may be in the lesson that they have given the next generation of companies and visionaries. Google said “Don’t be Evil,” and they meant it, but they found what others have found: it’s easier said than done, not because of temptation, but because nobody is quite sure what evil is. Luckily, those that are to come may be guided by a simpler principle:
Don’t be Google.