Imagine trying to explain Google to somebody who’d never heard of it before. It might sound a bit like this:
OK, so Google is this company that started off helping you search for things on the internet and later turned into a really successful advertising company — but an advertising company that wanted to do email and instant messaging and photos and social networking, and to map the entire globe. Also: It's a company that builds mobile phones and tablets. And, like, everyone uses them. For a lot of people, Google products are how they access the internet. In that sense, they sort of ARE the internet too. Google owns the biggest video site on the web and also makes one of the browsers you need to surf it. And Google is working on cars, too. The cars aren’t for sale, yet. But, when they are, they’ll drive themselves. Did I mention the company also makes thermostats and fire alarms?
Anyway, that's a lot of stuff. But it's actually pretty sensible, because Google learns a lot about you when you use it — the websites you visit, the videos you watch, the information you search for, all the things you do on your phone and tablet. And Google is always trying to use those things it knows about you to help you make better decisions in your everyday life — and feed you things you want or maybe didn’t know you wanted (Ads! Driving directions! Knowledge!). And that’s just the practical stuff. There’s also this secret lab that is trying to "cure" death and develop a special contact lens that can track diabetes. And since Google built that car that drives itself, the people running it have gotta be pretty smart. Oh, they bought the company that makes these guys, too:
It’s...a lot to process. Taken together, Google’s disparate ambitions read like those of a science-fiction monolith that is inexplicably very real. More importantly, they point to an increasingly popular conclusion: Google is more than a little creepy.
That creepiness is a branding issue of which the Artist Formerly Known As Google is keenly aware. In 2010, then-CEO Eric Schmidt infamously told an interviewer, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” The company’s well-worn informal corporate motto is “Don’t Be Evil.” That was a much easier line to toe back in a time before the world became aware of Google’s complicity with the NSA’s data-mining programs, and before YouTube, Maps, Gmail, Android, and Chrome all had roughly 1 billion users or more sending and receiving gobs of personal and private information and metadata.
Today it’s very hard not to view Google as a monolithic, information-hoarding, Big Data behemoth — a company that wants to and can be your everything, if you let it. And when you do, it's great and convenient — empowering, even. But the price for all of this? Your data. All or most of it. And, of course, you’ve been willingly handing that over to Google for the past decade anyway. Remember, if you're not paying for a product, then you probably are the product, as Google's rivals love to point out.
Tough optics. But Google is wealthy and smart, and smart enough to see that its more ambitious efforts — the moonshots, as they’re called — can be branded as an aspirational force for good in the world. Remember this Time magazine cover?
It was a way for Google to own up to its own creepiness by putting that feeling of unease toward its omnipotence to good use for mankind. There were big PR pushes on Google’s diabetes-combating contact lenses, as well as the launch of Calico, a new Google company which would “focus on health and aging.”
But it didn’t totally work. The moonshots felt like an admission that Google’s ambitions were only more dystopian and invasive — Google wants to literally INSERT ITSELF INTO YOUR EYES — than previously thought.
Which is why yesterday's big corporate restructuring — and the announcement of the Larry Page/Sergey Brin umbrella corporation, Alphabet — can be viewed as part of Google’s continued attempt to distance itself from its ever-increasing image as the panopticon in action, surreptitiously sowing the seeds of the dystopian future.
Nothing has changed, really; and yet, almost magically, one of the largest, most important, most powerful companies in the world has managed to shrink itself, and its potential threat, by way of a press release and an SEC filing. The vision, organization, and personnel are all essentially the same, and Google still has its hands in an almost-inconceivable number of cookie jars. But it’s now that much harder to quantify — or, for that matter, object to — its reach.
Consider the tech press’s reaction to the announcement today. Uh, so what is Alphabet? What is Google for that matter? It’s confusing, and Larry Page’s blog post didn't entirely help. But of course, that’s a good thing for Google.
Alphabet is a business matter — a bit of restructuring that, as Re/code’s Peter Kafka pointed out, essentially separates the company into two categories: a profit center and a cost center. But its true power is rhetorical: Add another company name, and you can preserve the Google name by untethering it from its broader, creepier scope.
That's not to say that the world, which has spent the entirety of this young millennium paying close attention to Google, can be that easily hoodwinked by a name change; Google’s actions demand scrutiny, and plenty of people will take Google/Alphabet to task, regardless of the name. But even if the coverage and conversation surrounding the company’s actions might mention Google, they'll be muted, camouflaged, and obfuscated for a general audience, or rather, the vast majority of the company’s users. And then there’s that anodyne company name — humane, inoffensive, childhood-evoking, slightly twee — chosen, Page says, in part “because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity's most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!”
If Google’s PR strategy surrounding its moonshots was an attempt to change the subject by taking Google’s most invasive, surreptitious, and potentially sinister features and recasting them as a solution to humanity’s biggest challenges, then Alphabet goes a step further. Alphabet essentially takes Google’s hardest-to-conceive-but-still-believable-and-therefore-really-unnerving projects — Calico, Google X, Project Loon — and places them outside of the Google umbrella and, most essentially, the Google brand.
And just like that, the company that can scan your email, photos, instant messages, browsing behavior, and mapped location on Earth is no longer — technically — the company that wants to knock on your door via drone, or drive your car for you, or put a contact lens in your eye, or keep you and your loved ones from dying. Those “far afield” endeavors that essentially showcase The Artist Formerly Known As Google’s raw power and means are property of Alphabet now. The tools that make your life easier, the familiar browsing, searching, emailing, smartphone elements that you’ve already deeply embedded into your lives, the things that make you feel excited about technology — that’s all Google. In the physical world, the analogue might be kicking the homeless out of downtown: All the underlying concerns, problems, and inequalities still exist, but they're just not as visible to the masses.
Which is not to say that there’s anything necessarily nefarious about today’s change. It’s probably in the best interest of Alphabet/Google/PageBrinCorp to adhere — at least publicly — to its former "Don’t Be Evil" moniker; that said, Alphabet opens the door for Page and Brin and their enormously talented, well-funded team to do new things and, in the process, become something different. If Google’s motto was/is "Don’t Be Evil," there were moments when its moonshots PR strategy suggested a subtle shift: Don’t seem evil. It’s unclear what catchphrase Alphabet will adopt, but you can be sure the world will be watching intently, which is the entire point. For the first time since 1998, the focus will be off of Google itself — whether or not it's evil won't matter.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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