In recent weeks, with the world’s eyes fixed on the deteriorating health of an ailing Pope, Google quietly offered users a God’s-eye view of Earth via its newest innovation–satellite imaging.
The feature augments Google’s widely lauded mapping service. Detailed digital photographs allow users to scope out millions of locations around North America. The images give an immediate sense of the density of a given area, the parks and vegetation, street and freeway layouts, local shops and hotels.
The satellite-mapping feature is the most recent addition to Google’s long list of achievements: Google Glossary, Google Deskbar, Google Mail, Google Mini, Google Video… Whoever coined the phrase “you never cease to amaze me” must have been perusing Google’s recent press releases.
Google’s most significant innovation, of course, is none other than its core service: its internet search engine. Few people remember search engines before Google. Results were plagued with manipulated entries, ads undifferentiated from normal hits, and pages riddled with irrelevant information. Google set a new standard, one that remains unmet. From collecting dissertation data to finding the nearest flower shop, Google has become to research what antiseptics are to surgery–not merely helpful, but usually the difference between success and failure.
That Google is a free service is often taken for granted, but this too is a matter of innovation. Google’s service includes a unique form of placed advertisements, seamlessly integrated into the search process. The placed ads are a win-win-win endeavor: the companies purchasing the ads get incredible exposure at low cost, the users get a free service unencumbered by pop-ups or annoying distractions, and Google nets the tremendous profit it deserves.
The Founders of Google have not only created this powerful tool, they’ve done the undoable by imbuing it–a computer search engine–with the type of playful, friendly personality normally associated with Disneyland. From the colorful logo and “I’m Feeling Lucky” option to its many famous pranks, it’s apparent from the first use that Google is not only effective, it’s entertaining.
Google’s love of intelligent technology and spirit of enthusiastic enterprise are evident in the many technology-related prizes, contests, and events it subsidizes. And underneath the company’s playful exterior, not surprisingly, is an equally playful corporate culture of practical jokes and friendly camaraderie. The company’s employees regularly engage in twice-weekly parking lot hockey games and enjoy daily Grade-A lunches prepared by a beloved in-house chef. From the inside out, Google seems to be getting everything right.
What makes possible such a profoundly revolutionary and consistently innovative company? In a word: virtue. Google creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page had the expertise to develop their search engine technology, the foresight to envision its value to mankind, and the business genius to see that a free search engine could be tremendously profitable. They had the courage to put their postgraduate Ph.D. plans on hold, borrow tremendous sums of money, and invest their lives in this venture. They had the appreciation of human ability that enabled them to take seriously the need to seek out competent partners and employees and then to encourage innovation in those they hired. They developed a clear business plan that first enabled them to avoid additional capital investment, and then later gave them the resources to buy companies that had strategic value in relation to their goals.
Google’s Founders have, since the company’s inception in 1998, stayed true to their vision of Google’s audacious mission: to organize all of human knowledge. The profundity of their achievement cannot be overemphasized: Google has so explosively improved man’s ability to pursue knowledge that life without it is now almost inconceivable.
Millions of people use Google daily. But is its value fully appreciated by our culture? Is its monumental impact on human life properly understood and celebrated?
Contrast Google with a very different cultural institution: the Papacy. Catholics world around revere the Papal Office. The Pope is a symbol representing single-minded devotion to God, including a strict renunciation of worldly pleasures.
Recently deceased Pope John Paul II was a man who, like Google’s Founders, stayed true to his vision. From publishing on theological issues to visiting the destitute around the world, Pope John Paul II was a tireless crusader for the Catholic Faith. He revitalized the prohibition against contraceptives, abortion and euthanasia, Catholic tenets that were otherwise on the defensive. He contributed to the explosive growth of Catholicism in Latin America. While he did strongly oppose the spread of communism in Europe, John Paul was also an impassioned critic of free trade. He condemned the motives and practices of businessmen, a group which emphatically included technological giants such as the founders of Google.
In his last years of life, Pope John Paul II developed an advanced case of Parkinson’s Disease. More than anything else he did, it was his response to this condition that symbolized his life. Rather than precipitating his withdrawal from the public arena, his disease served as an opportunity for him to display how deeply he was committed to the creed of sacrifice. While all Popes are symbols of unwavering faith, Pope John Paul II’s illness made him, perhaps more than any other Pope in history, a cultural icon for the view that suffering is a human ideal. The image of him–old, hunched, shaking with illness, lips quivering, cheeks grimacing against physical discomfort–dramatized his willingness to sacrifice his life for the sake of his Christian duty. Pope John Paul II, a faithful child of Jesus, demonstrated to the world what it means to bear a cross in service of God.
Those who admire Pope John Paul II do so because they recognize and applaud the moral significance of his life’s work. They see his subordination of personal ambition, his indifference to material wealth, his suppression of romantic/sexual desire in favor of strict celibacy, his endurance of disease. The Pope’s admirers look up at him and see the perfect embodiment of the Christian morality which tells man to sacrifice his happiness on Earth–with all the pleasures and joys it can offer–for the sake of an otherworldly ideal.
If the Pope embodies faith and suffering, consider what Google embodies. Its core mission–to make knowledge ever more accessible for human beings–entirely contradicts the Catholic Church’s reverence for blind obedience. Google’s history of innovation suggests that progress and development are good things, in contrast with the anti-technology, anti-science orientation of the Papacy. Its happy-go-lucky exuberance clashes head on with the Papacy’s fixation on suffering.
Google’s owners and employees have undoubtedly struggled against massive obstacles, yet rather than wearing their struggle as a badge of honor, they have denied its importance. The world represented by Google, far from being a vail of tears, is not even a battlefield–not even one where the good guys win–it is an exciting playground.
The actions of Google’s executives and employees–all the decisions they make day-in, day-out–reflect an implicit set of moral values. The industriousness of its programmers, for example, suggests they value productivity. The long-term vision of its management shows they value foresight, planning, thought. The very idea of a search engine that organizes information suggests the view that knowledge is a value to be pursued. And Google’s light, benevolent approach reflects the profoundly moral premise that life on Earth is to be enjoyed.
The Pope, a man of the cloth, wore his morality on his sleeve. Catholic altruism explicitly guided his choices and actions. Pope John Paul II is dead, and Pope Benedict XVI has been elected his successor. By all indications, Ratzinger promises to be as much of an advocate of anti-pleasure, anti-self morality as Wojtyla ever was. The new Pope knows the difference between his morality and Google’s, and will proceed to condemn audacious men who dare to place knowledge and happiness above faith and suffering.
Whether or not Google’s owners pay lip service to the Pope’s morality, they certainly do not operate their business by it. But no other professed code guides Google.
Google, as a major cultural symbol of the pro-knowledge, pro-happiness spirit of enterprise, will come under moral attack. Google’s management should apply their boundless ambition to the task of defending themselves and their worldview from such attack. They should search the expanse of human knowledge and see if they can find a new code of morality, one that will enable them to fight off the Popes of the world and proudly bring heaven to earth.
Ray Girn graduated last year from the University of Toronto, and now teaches math and science at a private elementary school in Orange County, California. He is a student at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center.