Two decades ago, two Stanford drop-outs revolutionised the way people navigate the entirety of human knowledge

What does this revolution mean for our world’s future?

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Larry Page and Sergey Brin had a heated argument with one another in 1995. It turned out, however, that arguing with people over ideas was what made both of them tick. The end result? A revolutionary piece of technology with revenues well over the $100 billion mark.

Page and Brin both came from families of scientists—mathematicians and computer scientists. Fate brought them together at Stanford University in California, in the computer science doctoral programme.

Looking for a dissertation topic, Page had stumbled upon a grand connector idea: what if the best way to locate information on the World Wide Web was not simply to track websites with the most mentioned number of the search phrase? Instead, could you search the internet by tracking its own metaphorical web of referencing?

In other words, instead of “phrase hits”, the most relevant online pages for any internet search would be the object of the most links regarding the topic explicit within the search phrase.

Backlinks would define relevance—as citations do in academic journals. An algorithm more closely integrated with the web-like pattern of the internet could thus best navigate its ongoing explosion of information.

Brin, fascinated by Page and the initial idea, joined the subsequent research project, and together the pair wrote a research paper entitled The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.

This would become the founding text of their initial venture, entitled BackRub, which was the tongue-in-cheek descriptor for their algorithm based on backlinks on the internet, known as PageRank.

And so a single idea, married with elegant mathematics, and perfect timing, would define a new age in global history.

They quickly realised the search engine potential of the algorithm, launched the tool on a Stanford page, and renamed BackRub to Google (a misspelling of “googol” – the name for the number in which a 1 is followed by a 100 zeros).

A domain was registered in 1997, the partners dropped out of Stanford, and launched a new business in a friend’s garage in California by 1998, after scrambling together a $1 million initial investment (including money from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos).

Eventually Page and Brin would provide the world with a navigational tool which would lead to what is now known as the Knowledge Economy or the Fourth Industrial Revolution—markets based on data rather than production based on raw material.

The company would go public in 2004, and move into the famous Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

By 2015, Google would become a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., with Sundar Pichai as the search engine’s CEO, allowing for Page and Brin (as CEO and President of Alphabet Inc. respectively) to focus on various “moon-shot” ventures, such as driverless cars, artificial intelligence (AI), solar wi-fi drones, and giant leaps in extending human lifespans via nano-bots.

This is not to mention other holdings including YouTube, Android, and Chrome.

What just happened?

In short, the power of the seed idea of Google created an unstoppable network effect. The effectiveness of the search engine meant that eventually no company with an online presence could avoid adapting their network possibilities to fit the Google algorithm.

Therefore, nobody can really compete with what Google does, on any meaningful scale, because Page and Brin were able to leverage their grand idea into a non-competitive market stake in our new so-called ‘Platform Economy’.

American writer and academic, Nick Srnicek, has literally written the book (Platform Capitalism) on this new type of economic activity.

According to Srnicek, “platform capitalism” is the new way of organising data centred upon the “network effect”, whereby the more users any platform gains, the more data they have to fine-tune their algorithms, the better the algorithms and data quantity, the better the final data delivery in the form of a service offered to the user.

This cascading effect means one platform will become in essence “the commons” for an activity. You “google” things. You do not “search the internet”. In the words of University of Southern California Innovation Lab director, Jonathan Taplin, writing for the New York Times:

“Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising, Facebook (and its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic and Amazon has a 74 percent share in the e-book market. In classic economic terms, all three are monopolies.”

Google is thus the essence of what PayPal’s Peter Thiel describes as non-competitive capitalism; organisations which do not need to compete in a market because of their unique thesis statement, which has taken them from “zero to one”.

Google does not need to race to the bottom of cost-cutting and lowering of profits to maintain a market share.

They are instead a platform for ongoing revolution, for vanguard capitalism (if one may adopt a Leninist term for a profit-seeking private entity).

Page and Brin are therefore participants in global, technological history-making, re-writing the perennial relationship between humanity, its knowledge, communication, and lore.

Page and Brin.

Page and Brin are not really celebrities.

Their names echo around the world, obviously, and they are both worth tens of billions of dollars, but they could probably walk into your local supermarket with nobody noticing. (Page even suffers from an autoimmune disease which makes it difficult for him to speak.)

Both were born in 1973, which primed them, as young scientists interested in computers, to contribute a big idea to the tech explosion of the 1990s in their mid-twenties – the age perhaps of the perfect intersection between brashness and skill.

Page grew up in Michigan, the Nikolai Tesla-inspired son of computer scientist parents. Gadgets and ideas were strewn across his childhood. But Page learnt from Tesla’s story that ideas and technology are not enough. Without commercial viability, invention can be exploited.

Brin, meanwhile, was born in Moscow, in the old Soviet Union. His parents emigrated when he was six, largely to escape apparent Russian anti-Semitism. His father and grandfather were both mathematicians, and he followed in their footsteps, studying at the University of Maryland before relocating to Stanford, joining Page in the computer science doctorate programme.

Intriguingly, both attended Montessori schools in their youth, and both attribute an intellectual curiosity and self-motivation to the Montessori educational philosophy.

Whereas Page’s mental drive lies at the heart of the Google story, it seems as though his more extroverted foil, Brin, brought a mind for strategy and marketing to the mix.

When a 28-year-old Page fired all project managers, and allowed tech engineers more freedom, investors forced him out of the chief executive role, bringing in “a babysitter”, Larry Schmidt, from Novell.

This arrangement lasted for ten years. (In the midst of this era, Page took a day and drove around Palo Alto filming the streets from his car —the result was Google’s current representation of the majority of the physical world on Google Maps.)

Eventually, an older Page would re-assert his role as visionary of Google, and return as CEO, with Schmidt tweeting that day, “Adult-supervision no longer needed.”

A few years later, the pair moved to the holding company. The advertising revenue brought in billions. Page wanted to use that to focus on the moon-shots.

“Anything you can imagine probably is doable,” Page told Google investors in 2012. “You just have to imagine it and work on it.”

The sentiment is reflected in the company’s reputation for its up-ending of corporate culture. One of Page’s chief inspirations is his grandfather who worked in the early labour movement, and Brin, the anti-authoritarian extrovert, revels in his role of managing policy and people at Google.

The result? A campus that provides three free meals a day, free home food delivery for new parents, designated private spaces for nursing mothers, and full on-site medical care, along with the couches and the games. Google is often voted the best work-place in the US and the world.

But everything, even what is digital, has a shadow.

In contrast to the company’s notion of leveraging technology to benefit the lives of billions, Google’s “platform capitalism” and its moon-shot ventures (aimed at non-competitive markets) have come under the ire of regulators.

Over the last decade, the European Union (EU) has fined Google over $9 billion under anti-trust regulations—for privileging their own business in their advertising and by forcing their customers to grant Google exclusive search engine advertising rights. Admittedly, the EU has a low bar for antitrust litigation, but the shadow does darken further.

Google has infamously collaborated with Chinese censorship of its internet provision, and there are rumours that Google has adapted its search engine into a new, more controlled product, “Dragonfly”. Brin has apparently tried to stop this expansion in the past.

The company has also collaborated with the US government in its mass electronic surveillance programme, entitled “PRISM”, and has also in the past worked on drone technology for the US military, which they ended owing to internal protests. Yet now critics are assailing Google for opening an AI laboratory in Beijing. Talks with the Pentagon are underway.

There are also electoral concerns surrounding Google. Could the algorithm swing an election? Google insists not. The algorithm is ideologically neutral. But some are not so sure. Donald Trump is a famous critic, but there is also a movement of non-partisan internet users pushing for a resistance to Google products.

Then there are the controversial leaks from company meetings in which it sometimes seemed as though Google, despite being an informational “commons”, takes explicit political positions. Google executives are known to be overwhelmingly Democratic Party supporters.

Meanwhile, Page and Pichai have both declined to appear before US Senate hearings on these questions.

Google is famous for its company motto: “Don’t be evil.” The sentiment is clearly positive. But if a company needs reminding of this, what does that tell us about the reach of its power?

Brin and Page’s story is one of promise and opportunity. But these shadows remind us that the story is not yet over. There are always perils inherent within success. 

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