Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
“You still have to learn the ABC.
The ABC says:
They will get you down.”
– Bertolt Brecht
The way to spell “Google” has changed, and now the way to properly write the company’s name is “Alphabet.”
The preceding sentence is simultaneously false and true, it is false insofar as the word Google will still be spelled G-O-O-G-L-E, and it is true insofar as the company which used to be talked about by the name Google must now be referred to by the title Alphabet. Of course, Google will still be around, but now the term refers rather specifically to the eponymous search engine – if one wants to discuss the tech company behemoth (the tech company formerly known as Google) now the proper term to use is “Alphabet.”
Google’s announcement that the company is renaming itself has caused some observers to cock an eyebrow with a mix of consternation and confusion. What drives a successful company to dispense with its well-known brand name? The easy answers to this parrot Google’s own (Alphabet’s own) talking points on the matter – highlighting that a new name is appropriate given the fact that today Google/Alphabet is much, much more than just a search engine. Indeed, the company’s brand has become diluted as the name has become something of a prefix to be slapped onto a host of different products: Google Earth, Google Glass, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Play, and this is not meant as an exhaustive list.
In recent years Google/Alphabet has already taken steps to break away from stamping its name upon everything its tentacles touch – such as the Internet of Things for your home company Nest – and the renaming seems to suggest this trend is only going to continue. It seems that Google is taking a hint from Facebook, and though Facebook has not changed its own name, it has managed to create the image of a separation between itself and the various companies it owns: Instagram, Whats App, Oculus, and so forth. Legion are the reports that indicate that “kids these days aren’t on Facebook, they’re on Instagram” but the secret of such stories remains that Instagram is just Facebook operating under a nom de plume. A degree of separation can be useful, and by changing its name, Google/Alphabet as established an impressive separation.
From self-driving cars and other robotic projects, to an ongoing commitment to Glass and smart clothes – Alphabet has big plans, and thus the question becomes: had the name Google become a hindrance?
There are likely genuine economic reasons that informed the decision to become Alphabet, and indeed there is even some truth to the fact that “Google” had become too small a term for what the company has become. And yet in reading of the name switch it is tempting to think of the whole affair as being akin to a magician’s sleight of hand. After all, the changes that are taking place at Google/Alphabet are primarily of the cosmetic variety: the company has not gone away, your information is still being collected and stored, the projects that evoked Huxley and Orwell in equal measure are still continuing, the same people are running it, and the same ideology is driving it.
Indeed it seems that one of the main things that renaming allows Google to accomplish is to create quite a bit of confusion. And for this reason this is a very shrewd move. Over the last several years there have been mountains of articles about what Google is doing, and those who follow tech news have become accustomed to hearing about the actions of Google – with a quick move that company seems to have disappeared only to be replaced by Alphabet. Though matters are made all the more muddled seeing as Google does still exist, but that Google now specifically means the search company. What the new name means is that Alphabet can continue to freely expand and experiment but that such expansions no longer run the risk of saddling the company’s core products with negative connotations. Perhaps Alphabet learned a lesson from Google Glass – in which the name of the product not only gave rise to a cutting insult (“glasshole”) but also tied the parent company name to a product that became something of an anchor around its neck. By putting Alphabet at the top and making all of its holdings smaller “independent” units, the company is better able to jettison any aspect that risks hurting the overall brand.
Alphabet is Google’s opportunity to build itself a fresh foundation, to use a shiny new name to concoct a new language for the company. Much of the original release material from Alphabet included an image of building blocks with the words “G is for Google,” and in this spirit it seemed fitting to suggest some other things for which the letters in Alphabet’s alphabet may stand:
A is for Alphabet, a new name for the same old company.
B is for Buying up competitors, the easiest way for Goliath to beat David is for Goliath to buy David out.
C is for Control, which remains in the hands of Google’s old executives.
D is for Dystopia, for Orwell the danger was that the world would become a prison, for Huxley the fear was that the world would become a burlesque – for Alphabet such books function as an excellent source of ideas for future products and services.
F is for Future, upon which Alphabet certainly has designs – but is their vision of the future one that excites or worries you? Is it a future you are building or one which will be foisted upon you?
J is for Jacquard, Alphabet’s plan to get in your pants.
K is for Kingdom, while Alphabet is clearly a large company it can be useful to think of it in terms of a feudal kingdom. Its executives are its Lords, the fawning tech press its priesthood, its programmers are its loyal (if disposable) knights, and its users are peasants permitted to stay on its land as long as they pay homage (by way of information).
M is for Monopoly, an old term, but one that still seems to capture the dominance for which Alphabet pines. Once upon a time, governments took steps to “bust up” various monopolies once they had grown too large – don’t count on that happening again.
N is for Nest, which allows Alphabet into your abode by making devices that feed information to the company an integral part of your home. Now Alphabet knows your preferred temperature, and if you hook up one of the new Nest cameras you can even provide the company with a convenient way to literally watch you.
O is for Oligarchy, a term connoting control by a small group. Alphabet is an internal oligarchy (as control remains vested in very few hands) and an external oligarchy as it is one of the small number of tech companies that exerts a dominant influence and control over the larger society.
P is for Promise, a line that has been repeated a million times regarding Google/Alphabet is the old mantra “don’t be evil.” This has been treated as a sort of ethical promise that has helped alleviate some of the concerns about the company’s trajectory. It is a line that seems to have left Google feeling rather embarrassed over years, perhaps one of the first things to be shown the door when the company became Alphabet was this silly old line.
Q is for Queries, billions of which flow through Alphabet every month supplying the company with massive amounts of information on you and the world in which you live.
R is for Right to be Forgotten, which Google was fighting against, and which Alphabet will likely also fight against – the question becomes, is this now the subsidiary Google’s problem instead of an issue for the larger company?
S is for Surveillance, just because it’s being done by a private company and not by the government doesn’t mean that it’s not still surveillance.
T is for Technology, a great deal of promise is bundled up in the idea of technology – we hope that it will improve our lives even as we remain wary of its potential devastating consequences. What Alphabet, and companies like it, demonstrates is the ways in which technological advances do not necessarily sweep away the status quo but can be used to help entrench it.
U is for Utility, and the simple fact that people continue using Google/Alphabet’s products because they have become used to them. Alternatives might be desired, but using Google/Alphabet is continually justified based on simple utility.
V is for Verb, which “Google” has become. An oft repeated phrase is “Google it,” a synonym for a web search and a way in which Google gradually came to rise in prominence by becoming part of common language. By calling itself Alphabet the company now makes the leap to asserting that they are not just part of the vernacular, they are the language in which it is expressed.
W is for World Wide Web, without the (publicly funded) Internet it is difficult to imagine a company like Alphabet emerging. Granted, it is worth remembering, Alphabet is not the Web, nor is it the creature that spun this particular Web, rather it is a fat spider eager to eat whatever gets caught.
Y is for You, if you have used Google products or services in the past than the company knows a heck of a lot about you. What all have you told them?
Z is for Zero, which is the number of reasons you have to trust this company whether it is called Google or Alphabet.
Bertolt Brecht. “A Reader For Those Who Live in Cities – 8.” Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956. London: Methuen, 1979. (the poem at the beginning of this piece is on page 8)