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2/17/2009
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Google's Presidents' Day Address

A company exec's rallying of Google employees leads to discussion on future offerings.

In the midst of one of the worst economic crises in American history, Google's senior VP of product management, Jonathan Rosenberg, has challenged Google employees to strive for greatness and to pursue the promise of the Internet.

Rosenberg's 4,400-word essay, initially written for internal distribution at Google and subsequently posted on the company's blog, begins as a response to President Obama's inaugural address. The passionate, sprawling mediation on the future attempts to frame the Internet as a way forward, as a positive, progressive path toward something better.

"At Google we are all technology optimists," writes Rosenberg, as if he were channeling Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto from the mid-1990s. "We intrinsically believe that the wave upon which we surf, the secular shift of information, communications, and commerce to the Internet, is still in its early stages, and that its result will be a preponderance of good."

In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of "new instruments" to meet our new challenges, backed by old values. For Rosenberg, the Internet is one such instrument, because "the challenges the world faces are, to a large degree, information problems."

That may be, but they're often also economic, political, religious, social, and health problems, too, problems not solved with a click.

Google's stated mission "is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Given 1.4 million people around the globe with Internet access and 3 billion with mobile phones, Rosenberg sees only growing demand for information and for search.

"Solving search is a long-term quest for perfection, but the transition of information from scarce and expensive to ubiquitous and free will conclude far sooner," he writes. "We will then bear witness to a true democratization of information, a time when almost everyone who wants to be online will be online, able to access virtually every bit of the world's information."

Rosenberg's vision, where "every fellow citizen of the world will have in his or her pocket the ability to access the world's information," is inspiring, but it's far from a done deal. His lofty missive may stir the heart about what's possible, but it gives no consideration to the practical reality of information access in a world where government censorship and Internet filtering are common.

Google has consistently backed the creation of more information as a way to make its search service more valuable. And while Rosenberg appears to be committed to that position, he also acknowledges that a lot of the information online is worthless.

"No one argues the value of free speech, but the vast majority of stuff we find on the Web is useless," he writes. "The clamor of junk threatens to drown out voices of quality."

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