Wednesday, December 28, 2005

'The Google Story' searches in vain

What exactly does 'Pulitzer Prize-winner mean? The list of recipients contains a lot of distinguished writers including Annie Proulx, and the music prize's distinguished winners include Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, and just about every other well-known American composer from the second half of the 20th century. But there seem to be an awful lot of Pulitzer Prize winners around, and the writers aren't all up to the standard of Annie Proulx.

David A. Vise has all the right credentials. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennnsylvania, has written four books, won a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for his journalism, and is a staff writer for The Washington Post. His latest book is 'The Google Story' which promises to take us 'inside the hottest business, media and technology sucees of our time.'

The problem with books about online developments is that they are really redundant. You can read it all on the internet anyway, and the pace of change is such that the book becomes obsolete soon after its published. Or in the case of 'The Google Story' redundant even before it is published.

Vise seems to be writing for pre-teen children - "Then they built streamlined computers, stringing them together, stringing them together with software, wiring, and the special sauce that made Google lightning fast" - sauce? Well, culinary topics are strong in the book, and Google's celebrity chef gets a lot more pages than more important subjects such as web censorship and blogs.

It doesn't help that the book is so poorly written - "As Bechtolsheim engaged in dialogue with the students that morning ... " - talked? "What the auction failed to achieve was a dearer price for Google stock" - higher? "He and his wife, a native of Great Britain ... " - British wife?

The book is clearly an irony free zone, as it appears is Google - the parentheses are Vise's: "In war-torn Liberia, Prince Charles Johnson lll, a college-educated driver for a U.N. mission, was able to use Google for most of his class assignments in economics and management while in school. Now he likes to keep up with news about American politics and President Bush. 'I love this guy,' Johnson writes. 'It was because of Google that I knew the entire First Family, Laura, Barbara, Jenny, Barney, Miss Beazley (dogs) and Willie (cat)."


If you think it can't get much worse that that - it does; as is shown by this perceptive passage about the indigenous population of Brazil: "Google CEO Eric Schmidt sees his company's reach ultimately extendijg to every place on Earth. 'When you look at the Amazon and you say, 'Why aren't there any Internet users?' it is because there is no power,' he explains.'And people are working on this. So we'll get them all, even the people in the trees."

The biggest flaw in a book that turns creating flaws into an Olympic sport is the superficial treatment of serious topics. Google's investment in Chinese search engine Baidu.com is simply positioned as another cool success story for the indomitable 'Sergey and Larry'. Baidu's involvement in music piracy and censorship, which I covered in my recent article, doesn't get a mention - which as the book is being published in China is predictable. Google's controversial book digitisation project is not placed in the context of the far-reaching intellectual property debate. Copyright questions relating to Google's image search feature are not aired. And unbelievably the rise of blogging, and Google's weak blog tracking capabilities, receives no coverage at all.

'The Google Story' is an unashamed attempt to cash in on the Google phenomena by a print journalist who simply doesn't 'get the internet'. The web site of the book is no more than print on the web. There are no updates, corrections, or reader debate, and it contains all of four links. (This article contains twenty-eight). The real value of this book about 'cutting-edge web technology' is measured by the fact that in its three hundred and eleven pages there is not one web site URL. This means that neither the book nor the web site carry any information on the biggest Google story for years - their purchase of 5% of AOL on 16th December. There is a double irony in that the Washington Post story about the AOL stake which doesn't make it onto the book web site (or the Post's own booster page for their staffer's book) was written by David Vise.

The Pulitzer Prize web site says: 'The board typically exercised its broad discretion in 1997, the 150th anniversary of Pulitzer's birth, in two fundamental respects. It took a significant step in recognition of the growing importance of work being done by newspapers in online journalism. Beginning with the 1999 competition, the board sanctioned the submission by newspapers of online presentations as supplements to print exhibits in the Public Service category. The board left open the distinct possibility of further inclusions in the Pulitzer process of online journalism as the electronic medium developed.'

Hopefully 'A Google Story' is just an isolated example of a leading print journalist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, failing spectacularly to connect with the electronic medium.

'The Google Story' by David A Vise is published by Random House, ISBN 0405053712. The co-author is Mark Malseed, but he doesn't get cover billing - no Pulitzer Prize perhaps?
Image credits: Header - www.labor.iu.eu
Book jacket -
'The Google Story'
Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. If bandwidth is a problem with your permission I will host your image.
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Access Denied

4 comments:

Emily said...

ahhh, Howard Hanson. Composer of Serenade for flute, harp, and strings. Best flute piece ever.

Did I mention that in my flute-playing days, I *owned* that piece?

Ben.H said...

In one of his composition classes, Morton Feldman once made his students listen to every piece of music that had been awarded a Pulitzer prize. Everyone was shocked at how shoddy many of them sounded, a mere 20-30 years later.

"What exactly does 'Pulitzer Prize-winner' mean," you ask? What indeed.

It should be noted that Pulitzer juries do not make a final decision, but can only recommend to the Pulitzer advisory board: plenty of room for compromise and groupthink to flourish there, especially after 1974 when the board vetoed the literature jury's choice (Gravity's Rainbow).

A couple of generations from now, will readers rate Proulx as highly as we do now?

Pliable said...

Kudos to The Washington Post
for linking to my not very favourable review.

Pliable said...

From today's Observer leader.

China's record on sacking and imprisoning dissident journalists is appalling. The most recent example of this cavalier attitude to press freedom was the removal of Yang Bin, editor of China's boldest and best tabloid, the Beijing News, fired for publishing reports of corruption and the growing clashes between police and villagers protesting over unfair confiscation of their land. Both breach the country's strict censorship rules. Yet more rules forbid journalists from travelling freely, while close to a billion dollars have been spent on policing the internet, with which, to their shame, both Microsoft and Google co-operate.