Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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What Would Google Do?

January 18, 2009General

I got my hands on an early copy of Jeff Jarvis's What Would Google Do? It's full of ideas, and it's perfectly timed for the economic storm we're experiencing right now. The way Jarvis sees it, most of our industries and institutions developed in a time of information constraints. People made money or acheived power, whether in publishing, banking, insurance or education, by leveraging the information they had access to. They profited from scarcity.

Information, in the age of Google and the Internet, is no longer scarce. It no longer takes time to travel from one place to another. Knowledge no longer requires the movement of atoms. Our brains are linked. That is the revolution Jarvis describes. Of course, we've all been aware of these changes brewing since the dawn of the Internet. But Jarvis does a very good job pulling it all together. Readers of his blog will be familiar with many of his arguments, from his push for transparancy, links and "publicness" to "small is the new big." But the book forces him to synthesize more than on the blog, and to tie these phenomena together.

Jarvis was at work on this book before our economy dive-bombed. But as I mentioned, our economic situation makes the book more relevant, not less. This economy is on its way to tearing down the inefficient structures built in the age of scarce information. Understanding and adapting to the forces he describes are no longer simply competitive issues. For many--journalism and publishing are front and center--it's a matter of survival.

(I might add here that the Numerati are leading actors in this drama. The information revolution he describes creates the rivers of data they feed on. And there are no bigger Numerati on earth than the triumvirate running Google, a company entirely built on the analysis of data and the statistical correlations between what we're looking for and the advertisements most likely to interest us.)

Google, in Jarvis's book, is a number of things. It's an extraordinary company managed for a new type of innovation; it's a resource providing the closest thing we've yet seen to the keys to knowledge; it's a business based on providing valuable services for free; it's also a metaphor for the broader phenomenon of the networked world.

Given the current circumstances, I wish Jarvis had chosen another name for the book. I suspect that some people will view it as another book on highflying Google--whose stock has fallen $300 from its high. Given the mess we're in, and the lessons Jarvis has to teach, I think a more appropriate title might be "Survival."

(Disclosure: Jeff Jarvis is a friend of mine. We eat lunch every few months. At one of those lunches, in my favorite Usbeki-Kosher joint on 47th Street, he asked me my opinion of his working title, WWGD. I told him that I didn't now what those initials stood for. He told me it was a reference to WWJD, which stands for What Would Jesus Do? That was news to me.)

Below: Jarvis discussing the book.

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