Google has finally ended its own search. In a letter from Aug. 10, Larry Page, the Alpha and Omega of Google Inc., informed the company’s investors that he and his partner Sergey Brin have founded Alphabet Inc., a sort of conglomerate that will separate Google’s activities into different companies with independent management. But Page offered up an odd announcement/explanation to introduce his latest invention: “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!” he writes in his letter, which is published on the Alphabet website – a site that is still surprisingly rudimentary for a tech giant.
“Collection”? “Letters that represent language”? Is language an innovation and not the result of a human evolution? Even the imperfect Wikipedia does it better when it explains that, “An alphabet is a standard set of letters (basic written symbols or graphemes) which is used to write one or more languages based on the general principle that the letters represent phonemes (basic significant sounds) of the spoken language.” A “set of letters,” instead of a “collection” of free-floating letters in the universe of Google Search, is much closer to an accurate explanation of our alphabet. The simplest answer, however, would be that the alphabet system – what we call a phonemic orthography in linguistics – was a more modern development that had clear benefits over complex orthographies in which individual symbols had their own associated semantics – an older system that has generally been supplanted by alphabet-based scripts.
Page and Brin’s Alphabet does not mean that Google Search is over. We will be able to continue to google– we will be googling until somebody creates a better search engine, without algorithms linked to the aggressive advertising business model that is bringing billions of dollars to the owners of Google Inc.
But Page is similarly joyful even when he tells us that Alphabet is another type of collection: “Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main Internet products contained in Alphabet instead.” Larry Page is obviously not a linguist or a writer. He is a collector. In the last decade, Google Inc. accumulated almost as much money as Saudi Arabia had saved in half a century in the petroleum business – a number in the billions. “In 2014 the Transnational Institute’s annual State of Power report found that thirty-seven of the one hundred largest economies in the world where corporations rather than nation states. The annual revenue of Apple, for example, was greater than the GDP of Bangladesh, Hungary, or Morocco. Handling power on this scale requires statecraft: the sound business reasons for Google’s transformation are accompanied by sharp political nous,” M.G. Zimeta writes in a brilliant piece entitled “Don’t Be Evil.” It is obvious that, with this kind of money in its state vaults, Google went far afield in space and time, looking for more advanced, innovative and even futuristic businesses. The collection list is long, as you can see in TechCrunch’s excellent photo story, “The Tech Behind Each Letter In Google’s Alphabet.” It’s not just about Google Glass, delivery drones, phones or balloons that help spread broadband internet across the globe; it’s also about longevity and, of course, driverless cars. Alphabet Inc. is not a simple diversification of Google business, or as some commentators suspect, an attempt to reorganize Google to better exploit loopholes in tax laws. Neither is it what European regulators suspect – that with the split of activities and duties into smaller corporations, Google plans to avoid anti-trust regulations. It is all this, but much more, as well. Like any nation, Google/Alphabet undoubtedly has many state secrets. The explanation that Google has provided in the last few days is that Alphabet is meant to divide the core Internet businesses from research and development, which – for the time being – represent only a small amount of Google’s income. It is known that Google’s Internet search business still creates 90 percent of their income. Page also argues that the research companies in Alphabet will become more independent and more transparently managed, which is apparently in the best interest of investors.
Most of the American media seems to believe this story. They repeat what they are told word for word, forgetting that Google was involved in an NSA scandal, accommodating the government in its search for the surveillance information. Or the fact that Eric Schmidt, a former Google CEO and the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., was a campaign advisor and major donor to Barack Obama and served on Google’s government relations team. After Obama won in 2008, Schmidt became a member of President Obama’s transition advisory board.
This time, amnesia caught even the usually-pretty-accurate Quartz, where writer Maxi Nisen joined in the argument over whether Alphabet will have the same conglomerate structure as Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. On what basis? One little leaflet that Larry Page wrote? Short of information, the high brow New York Times tried to outwit Google’s invention with a not-very-funny piece full of pseudo-intellectual snobbery.
In the tons of reports and comments I read before writing this post – and I swear, I didn’t use Google search – I found only Zimeta’s aforementioned article, with its mix of Google, Alphabet and Machiavelli to be both incredibly amusing and truly analytical:
The restructuring of Google into Alphabet allows some of Google’s wider, non-internet activities and subsidiaries to be distanced from it, politically…. These non-Google activities are eclectic, but not incoherent. They dovetail with, and may be driven by, the behavioral and demographic insights gained from the Google business—insights both international and intimate. Through Google, there are some ways in which Alphabet will know more about you than your partner, your lover, your bank manager, your doctor, your psychiatrist, your priest, your government, or all of these combined. Even if you withhold personal information from Google, your privacy will be as short-lived and effective as a paper umbrella in the rain: the sheer volume of data available to Google from everyone else will allow it to predict or infer information about you quite accurately. Would Google have this kind of penetration and ubiquity if it were associated with military excursions, pharmaceuticals, and domestic surveillance? Probably not.
Protecting Google from political contamination from Alphabet’s wider activities is not just necessary for Google—it’s necessary for Alphabet.
This is already brilliant, but it gets much better with support of quotes from Machiavelli’s Il Principe. In short, the motivation seems to be opposite from the explanation that Page has provided for investors, and what the media has perhaps naively accepted. It isn’t about investors, it’s about how to protect Google from much more political, perhaps even military, businesses. Alphabet’s collection of projects needs to be separated so that they can continue to impregnate each other. Zimeta also elaborates on why the slogan “Don’t be Evil” (while you are getting rich) in Google’s founding manifesto from 2004 disappeared from the latest document. Reading between the lines, it seems that the new slogan could be, “Get rich and be quiet” – the slogan with which Deng Xiaoping transformed Maoist China into what it is today.