A googolplex is 1 followed by 10 to the power of 100 zeros. Search engine Google was named after 10 to the 100th power (googol, a physically impossible number, we are told, because the elementary particles in the universe number only 10 to the 80th power). A googolplex (a large number equal to ) is hard to even think about. So, no, Google is not a googolplex. But it is still formidable.
First, we all know Google as a search engine, but it is also a very big enterprise. It owns about eighty companies (including Android, Youtube, smartphones, advanced robotics, smart systems, artificial intelligence), mostly based in the United States, and continues to acquire more—to say nothing of investing in still others. It’s a fairly new company, founded and privately incorporated in 1998 by Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They still own about 14 percent of its shares but maintain control through supervoting stock. Forbes says they have nearly 48,000 employees and nearly $60 billion in yearly sales, and are #3 in the world’s most valuable brands.
Is Google bigger than most media companies? Yes. German media giant Axel Springer capitulated recently and started allowing Google to index its news stories.
Is Google bigger than governments? Maybe; it depends on the government. Recently, a provincial Canadian court (British Columbia) ordered Google to block sites worldwide, in a trade dispute, and still insists that the giant comply.
Google intends to appeal the decision, but if, in the end, the ruling ends up applying only to Canadians, it is not clear how such a ruling will help Canadians. And that is the key problem.
On the one hand, we don’t want big companies to flout our national laws; on the other hand, if information is marketed, how does it help the average business to be denied the same access to information that international competitors have?
That is one of the many conundrums the Internet creates. We must all struggle toward solutions.
I’ve sometimes said that it is hard to sell information on the Internet for the same reasons as it is hard to sell seawater in the ocean.
But it gets worse: It is harder to keep information from going wherever someone wants than to keep seawater out of low countries like Holland. That is because seawater merely follows the laws of gravity, but information tends to be directed by an intelligence. The intelligence usually has some idea where the information “ought” specifically to go. That is a way bigger challenge.
Whatever happens, it’ll likely be new in some respects. As The Economist explains,
Three of the big four are still run by men who made their billions as founder, or co-founder, of their empires—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. And although Jobs [1955–2011] no longer rules Apple, he groomed Tim Cook, his successor as chief executive. “In the modern history of technology we have never seen such a highly engaged group of chief executives and founders,” says Mary Meeker, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture-capital company.
Let’s hope they just want to sell stuff, and don’t turn their attentions to fixing the rest of us, according to their lights.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.