A Visit to Google

Mountain View, California — An invitation to visit Google’s headquarters and meet some of the people who made this ten year old giant that is giving Microsoft the nervies has to start with wonder.

The “campus” keeps spreading with the growth of Google into more and more fields, even though advertising revenue still comprises over 90 percent of its total revenues. The company wants to “change the world,” make all information digital and accessible through Google. Its company motto is “Do No Evil,” which comes under increasing scrutiny, especially in the firm’s business with the national security state in Washington, DC and with the censors of Red China.

Google’s two founders out of Stanford graduate school — Sergey Brin and Larry Page — place the highest premium on hiring smart, motivated people who provide their own edge and work their own hours.

We were given “the tour” before entering a large space to be asked and answer questions before an audience of wunderkinds. E-mail traffic was monitored worldwide with a variety of electronic globes with various lights marking which countries were experiencing high or low traffic. Africa was the least lit. One of our photographers started to take a picture but was politely waved away with a few proprietary words. A new breed of trade secrets.

I noticed all the places where food — free and nutritious — was available. The guide said that food is no further than 150 feet from any workplace. “How can they keep their weight down with all these tempting repasts?” I asked. “Wait,” he said, leading us toward a large room where an almost eerie silence surrounded dozens of exercising Googlelites going through their solitary motions at 3:45 in the afternoon.

“How many hours do they work?” one of my colleagues asked. “We don’t really know. As long as they want to,” came the response.

In the amphitheatre, the director of communications and I started a Q and A, followed by more questions from the audience. It was followed by a YouTube interview. You can see both of them on: (Q&A) http://youtube.com/watch?v=KR-V6bl41zU and (Interview) http://youtube.com/watch?v=zzUrUNhIj4c&feature=related.

Google is a gigantic information means, bedecked with ever complex software, to what end? Information ideally leads to knowledge, then to judgment, then to wisdom and then to some action. As the ancient Chinese proverb succinctly put it — “To know and not to do is not to know.”

But what happens when a company is riding an ever rising crest of digitized information avalanches without being able to catch its breath and ask, “information for what?” I commented that we have had more information available in the last twenty five years, though our country and world seem to be getting worse overall; measured by indicators of the human condition. With information being the “currency of democracy,” conditions should be improving across the board.

“Knowledge for what?” I asked. Well, for starters, Google is trying to figure out how to put on its own Presidential debates, starting with one in New Orleans in the autumn. Certainly it can deliver an internet audience of considerable size. But will the major candidates balk if there are other candidates meeting criteria such as a majority of Americans wanting them to participate?

The present Commission on Presidential Debates is a private nonprofit corporation created and controlled by the Republican and Democratic Parties (see http://opendebates.org/). They do not want other seats on the stage and the television networks follow along with this exclusionary format.

Google, with its own Foundation looking for creative applications that produce results for the well-being of people, should hold regular public hearings on the ground around the country for ideas. They may be surprised by what people propose.

In any event, the examples of knowing but not doing are everywhere. More people succumbed to tuberculosis in the world last year than ten years ago. Medical scientists learned how to treat TB nearly fifty years ago. Knowledge alone is not enough.

For years the technology to present the up-to-date voting record of each member of Congress has been available. Yet only about a dozen legislators do so, led by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Chris Shays (R-CT). Recalcitrant power blocks what people most want directly from their lawmakers’ website. Here Google can make the difference with Capitol Hill, if it wants to connect information technology to informed voters.

When the internet began, some of us thought that it would make it easy and cheap for people to band together for bargaining and lobbying as consumers. At last, the big banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, automobile firms and so forth would have organized countervailing consumer power with millions of members and ample full time staffs. It has not happened.

Clearly technology and information by themselves do not produce beneficial change. That depends on how decentralized political, economic and social power is exercised in a corporate society where the few decide for the many.

I left Google hoping for a more extensive follow-up conversation, grounded in Marcus Cicero’s assertion, over 2000 years ago, that “Freedom is participation in power.” That is what connects knowledge to beneficial action, if people have that freedom.

Ralph Nader is a leading consumer advocate, the author of The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right, among many other books, and a four-time candidate for US President. Read other articles by Ralph, or visit Ralph's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on May 21st, 2008 at 10:13am #

    Lol. Ralph, remember when television hit the market. It was touted as being not just entertainment but a means to educate and inform the people – and the airwaves would always be free!

    The Internet and especially Google are and will be simply a slicker/quicker way to control the thinking of those fortunate to have net access. The most popular political “sites” are and will be those which push the standard staged sideshow politcal party lines of left or right, to give the illusion of choice.

    I know from experience that Google listens when powerful wealthy people tell them to. Google will censor and/or delete, and will act as exclusionary as necessary to maintain the status quo. And just as with television – folks will be clicking and picking through mountains of garbage and propaganda and calling it “truth.”

    Maintaining the status quo – is the nature of all corporate beasts.

  2. jamie said on May 21st, 2008 at 11:14am #

    Here…….let me get that for the billions of humans who consume massive amounts of pre-packaged propoganda in ALL forms……. ( pulling on string attached to a 3.5 billion watt light-bulb) ……there……that’s better.

    Now we can see the truth.

    evie……. no one can dispute your reasoning. It’s that obvious!
    I read here just to hear your perspective. Thanks.

  3. evie said on May 21st, 2008 at 7:10pm #

    Thanks jamie.

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on May 22nd, 2008 at 1:34pm #

    Thanks for this one, Ralph. Once again you call it like it is. Any scientific/medical advance is useless unless those who need it can get it. You and McKinney are the only well known candidates who support a “Single Payer” system so that all can have access to medical care.

    Google and/or C-Span should hold the debates. The debates should be open to all legitimate candidates and there should be no moderator – just a time keeper to assure that all have equal time.

  5. Robert B. Livingston said on May 22nd, 2008 at 4:44pm #

    Is the internet Democratic (as defined participation in power)?

    Note the disclaimer:
    “Adding comments has been disabled for this video.”


    And the same– with my comment:


    Which link do you think is more accessible by Google?

  6. Brandy Baker said on May 23rd, 2008 at 4:07pm #

    I fear that some may be being a bit purist here. I’m not exactly gung-ho over Google, but I do appreciate that they, along with Amazon, support net-neutrality and are willing to stand up to the telecom giants. Are they revolutionaries? No. But in order to keep net neutrality, just having radicals work on the issue is not going to cut the mustard. When a powerful enemy of our enemy is willing to be on the right side of an issue for whatever reason, whether that be Google, Amazon, Tim-Berners Lee, or whoever, we should not be so roundly dismissive and .

    I also appreciate the fact that Google had Ralph Nader on as well as Noam Chomsky. They are opening up the dialogue in ways that corporate TV media is not. many of the Google employees were receptive to what Ralph had to say because he made intelligent arguments backed up with fact. If I go to another event where the usual, tiny, insular baby-boomer activist crowd are the only ones there, I’m going to gag, which is probably why I haven’t been going to these events.

    Yes, the fact that the most popular “left” sites are lame Democratic Party hack sites such as slightly right of center and nearly useless Daily Kos and Democratic Underground. Or other sites such as Huffington Post, and AlterNet (though again, Alternet to the greatest extent and Huffington to a lesser extent do have some good articles, so we shouldn’t give a blanket condemnation of these two sites). But I think that we are also to blame for this. The radical-revolutionary left does not focus on aesthetics when it comes to art because they solely focus on message. So when our music sucks though the lyrics are politically right on, when our publications and sites look crappy because we don’t care about design and visual appeal, we cannot solely blame the public for passing us by.

  7. Robert B. Livingston said on May 25th, 2008 at 10:21am #

    Ralph Nader was so last week…


    and Chomsky!

    Who will they get next?

    Splitting the Sky?

    …meanwhile the sun goes up… the sun goes down.

    and we all go ’round and ’round.

  8. Brandy Baker said on May 29th, 2008 at 9:51pm #

    yes, but if you read the piece, you see that the Google employyes did not buy into the bullshit:

    “One of the first employees asked Rice: “If an American held by another country were subjected to simulated drowning by waterboarding, would that shock your conscience and would you consider that torture?” He continued by asking Miliband to what extent US use of the torture method against detainees had created a “strain between the United States and your government.”

    Much of the audience responded to the question with applause.”