A story in the New York Times raises the question of influence that accrues to Google as a matter of its reach and exceptionally innovative productivity. There are many threads in this story: the impact on salaries in Silicon Valley, the coming of age of idealistic entrepreneurs, and the hubris and aggressiveness that seem inseperable from the overheated success of such companies.
Among the arguments:
"Google is doing more damage to innovation in the Valley right now than Microsoft ever did," said Reid Hoffman, the founder of two Internet ventures, including LinkedIn, a business networking Web site popular among Silicon Valley's digerati. "It's largely that they're hiring up so many talented people, and the fact they're working on so many different things. It's harder for start-ups to do interesting stuff right now."
Damage to innovation? Well, no. Concentration of innovation? Yes, perhaps. One might argue that such concentration is damage. If so, it will be short lived. Innovation can be badly managed, and suppressed for a time, or subverted, but you can't keep people from creating, especially in an economy that prizes the underdog and self-interest. We're better off understanding the means by which Google is succeeding rather than bemoaning its success.
A decade into the Web Era, we should understand nothing so well as how fast things change. Could Microsoftian hegemony have persisted as long as it has in a world without the natural monopoly of a dominant operating system? Probably not. Can Google insinuate itself as deeply into our information infrastructure as has Microsoft? It is not obvious that they can.
Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems once observed (when Sun was higher in the sky): "at any given time, all the smart people don't work for you". At the moment, more of the smart people work for Google than for most places. They've done a great job of attracting wonderful talent that makes the exceptional seem routine.
Their success cannot help but make them the Establishment, though, and the signs of corporate defensiveness (l'affaire CNet, for example) are making people edgy, including a lot of Google-fans. If people lose trust in them, their leadership will be vulnerable.
Public Trust and stability of mission are among the greatest assets that libraries enjoy in today's information space. The stability part is a two sided coin (it makes us... libraries... slow to change in a rapidly evoloving environment, but pretty good about sustaining long-term cultural assets).
The trust part is an unalloyed strength, an asset centuries in the making, and reinforced by our role in society - a role characterized by neutrality in sustaining the information commons. The rapid shift in perceptions of Google may be a hiccup or a major sea change - its impossible to know at this point. But if nothing else, it should remind us that people trust libraries, and for very good reason.