Why we can’t quite seem to make up our minds about Google

At this point in its history, Google is like that good friend who is extremely accomplished and successful but who you really, really hope doesn’t fall in love with a relative.

One of Silicon Valley’s greatest contributions to the tech industry is a company that most of us gladly put at the center of our online world every day in some form or another to help us manage our lives, yet it’s a company that makes us a little queasy when we stop to think about the side effects of its relentless push forward. Perhaps that was best evidenced this past week in San Francisco during Google I/O, when Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page took the stage at the end of the company’s seemingly interminable keynote to deliver a heartfelt speech about the role of technology in our lives and Google’s quest to make the world a better place.

Larry Page, Google

Most of what Page said (in a hoarse, whispery voice that is a lingering gift from a bout of vocal-cord paralysis) was exactly the type of aspirational thinking you want to see from technology leaders: (all quotes courtesy of TechHive’s transcription of Page’s talk)

“And I’m amazed every day I come to work, the list of things that needs to be done is longer than the day before. And the opportunity of those things is bigger than it was before. And because of that we, as Google, and as an industry–all of you–really only have one percent of what is possible. Probably even less than that.”

As Page spoke, Google’s stock price rose noticeably. It closed the week at an all-time high of $909.19, a price which valued the company at just over $300 billion. While the advertising market that underwrites Google’s ambitions is going through a bit of flux as we switch the center of our online lives from desktop computing to mobile computing, it’s pretty clear from the breadth of products showcased at Google I/O that if even a few of Google’s long-term bets pay off, the company is well-positioned to be a force in technology for decades to come with products that are, at times, remarkably useful.

But then Page kept talking.

First he decried negativity in the tech industry, which while indeed a bit over the top at times, is a pretty silly thing to highlight considering that one of Google’s early goals — once it had established itself as a search superstar in the early 2000s — was to destroy Microsoft’s hammerlock on the tech industry. And one of its more recent goals was to prevent Apple from seizing control of the smartphone market with the iPhone.

Google Apple Vic Gundotra Google I/O 2011

Things like Google Docs were conceived in part to dent Microsoft’s monopoly over office-productivity software and move more people onto the web, where Google benefits. The early marketing campaigns that Google and its partners chose for Android were similarly adversarial, highlighting the fact that “Droid Does” as a response to Apple’s tight control of the App Store approval process. And in 2010, summoning perhaps the greatest rhetorical flair showcased at a Google I/O, Google’s Vic Gundotra compared Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to the faceless overlords of George Orwell’s books, warning that if it wasn’t for Android, we “faced a draconian future where one man, one phone, one carrier were our choice.”

That selective memory wasn’t enough. Page proceeded to uncork some of the most truly head-scratching things a Google CEO has ever said, and that’s something considering the pace at which former Google CEO and current Chairman Eric Schmidt used to poorly execute jokes about identity and privacy concerns with a condescending smarmy tone.

“You know, if you look different kinds of laws we make, and things like that, they’re very old. I mean, the laws when we went public were 50 years old. (A) law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old. Like, it’s before the Internet.”

Page did not follow up with a request to dismantle the Bill of Rights, but even casual thoughts that laws predating the Kennedy assassination have no relevance today should raise eyebrows when expressed by one of the world’s richest men, especially one who is sitting on a treasure trove of personally identifiable data. Sure, there are things like copyright laws that make less sense in today’s era, but why not single those out instead painting with such a wide brush?

Big Brother is watching you

And then there was this gem:

“There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do ’cause they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation. And that makes sense, we don’t want our world to change too fast. … I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out: What is the effect on society? What’s the effect on people? Without having to deploy it into the normal world.”

Imagine: an area of the world set aside for totally unregulated and unsupervised experimentation. What could possibly go wrong?

So stands Google at this moment in its history. It has brought so many wonderful products into our lives, from search and Google Maps to Android and Google Fiber. Yet it is clearly bent on accelerating the pace of change in our world without fully comprehending, as Page’s comments show, the need to avoid fixing things that aren’t broken.

New technologies are always going to have positive and negative effects on society, and it’s our job as consumers, observers, and regulators to sort those out. Perhaps more than any other single company at present, Google is at the forefront of those positive and negative changes; organizing the world’s information and connecting the planet to the web so that personally identifiable databases of one’s likes, dislikes and peccadillos can be served up on a platter to the advertising industry.

That makes Google worth a lot of money. It also makes Google worth a lot of scrutiny. If Page thinks his company and industry is currently beset by what he considers “negativity,” he’s in for a surprise over the next decade.

Larry Page image courtesy Getty Images / Justin Sullivan. Billboard image courtesy Flickr user Thomas Leuthard.