Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The World According to Google

Ever wondered what goes on inside Google? Why would you? It is only one of the most important companies in the world right now. Well, if you have, and even if you haven't, short of getting a job at the big G, Steven Levy's In the Plex: How Google Works, Thinks and Shapes our Lives is about as close as a non-MIT, Stanford or even Cambridge graduate, such as myself, is likely to get.

Having already read a couple of books about Google (What can I say? I'm a geek), I can safely say, In the Plex is by far the best. Levy himself has some form in this area. A contributing editor to Wired magazine for nearly 20 years, he also wrote the definitive text about the early years of the computing industry - Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - detailing everything from MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club (the first people to call themselves 'hackers') to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs innovations in the home computer market in the 1980s. That's PCs young people. Ask your parents.

Levy was given unprecedented 'high-level' access to Google executives, as a result of which the book has more details about how and why certain decisions were taken than any other. It also includes extensive interviews with the triumvirate known to Googlers as simply LSE - Larry, Sergey and Eric. That is, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the computer science graduates who developed the Google search engine in a Standford dorm room while studying for their PhDs, and Eric Schmidt, the former Chief Technology Officer at Sun Microsystems and slick Silicon Valley veteran, brought in by Google's early venture capital partners who insisted Page and Brin have some kind of 'adult supervision'.

The book's description of the company's early years are some of its most interesting. Apparently, the name 'Google' arose out of a misspelling of 'googol', the mathematical name for a number followed by 100 zeros (I thought these people were supposed to be super-geniuses?) It was also during these years that the company's corporate culture was solidified, its famed 'Don't be Evil' mantra arising out of an early meeting. The image of a Silicon Valley start-up working out of someone's garage, buying cut price furniture from bust dot-coms, growing at a fantastic rate and making up rules as they went along was Google at its best and, occasionally, at its worst. Even during those early years, Larry Page's enormous ambitions and boundless cyber utopianism was a cause of conflict with those who failed to appreciate his vision and (whisper it not), maybe even disagreed with him.

That anarchic spirit is really at the heart of Google and has played an important role in its tremendous growth over what is still a very short period of time. Both a strength and a reason to give some people pause, Google's has always preferred to act first and ask questions later, to push the boundaries of acceptability before backtracking when a more cautious public alert the High Geeks that they have taken things too far.

Levy details Google's rise from singular research project to globe-spanning megacorporation with the kind of clarity and surehandedness one would expect from an experienced journalist. The algorithm begat the search engine, the search engine begat the aution-based advertising model, the auctioning-based advertising model begat a massive infrastructure, which in turn spawned Gmail, Google Docs, Google Chrome (web browser), Google Chrome OS, the Android mobile ecosystem and onwards into cloud computing, realtime voice translation, computer vision, artifical intelligence research and self-driving vehicles. And those are just the 'big ticket' items. There is also Google News, Google Maps, (the controversial) Google Streetview, Google+ (the newest social network on the block), even Google Books (an incredibly ambitious project which has so far scanned in excess of two million books, but which is now mired in legal difficulties), and Blogger, of course, where this post is hosted... I could go on. No, seriously, I could.

What the book revels in and what I suspect many people have yet to realise is just how vast Google has become. More than just a search engine? You better believe it! The numbers are mind boggling. Last year Google earned revenues in excess of US$22 billion and, though it tries to keep such things as secret as possible, it is estimated that Google now operates in excess of 24 data centres worldwide filled with over one million servers and all connected via the world's most expansive fibre-optic network. Google is believed to own more fibre-optic cable than any other company on the planet; Google is investing massive amounts of money in renewable energy to lower the price of power at its data centres; and Google recently bid on the latest next generation mobile bandwidth auction in the United States and was only narrowly beaten by telecoms giant Verizon.

The extent of the founder's ambitions (Larry Page in particular) are covered in detail, as is the much publicised corporate culture at the Googleplex, where staff enjoy free catering as well as gym, swimming, massage and games facilities - also free. Then there is the much lauded '20 percent time', wherein Google engineers are given license to pursue projects not directly related to the company's main business activities - major innovations and revenue generators such as Gmail and Google Maps apparently arose out of '20 percent time'. This, a reflection of Larry and Sergey's background in academia and their desire to run Google like a university campus, an intellectual playground for the supersmart, replete with all of the toys they could ever want to play with - every project team has access to their own server racks and Google's enormous data sets.

Not that the book is without its flaws. Ethical dilemmas with globe-spanning significance, related to information ownership, computer security and individual privacy, of the kind which Google face every day, are somewhat glossed over, Levy tending towards the not particularly salutary 'trust us, we're Google' viewpoint, espoused by the company's founders and top executives. Legitimate concerns about the scope of Google's power and influence are addressed to some extent in a long chapter about Google's troubled relationship with the Communist Party of China. But issues to do with potential abuses by governments and corporations in democratic countries are given short shrift, almost as if they are not significant. Even though recent outrage about the extent of mobile phone tracking by Google, Apple and others seems to suggest otherwise. Personally, I am quite sure that there are yet more privacy timebombs waiting to go off, once the general population is made aware of the extent of the data collection and user profiling undertaken by major internet-based companies.

Then there are the enormous amounts of data Google collects - four billion searches every day and what could possibly be more intimate than somebody's search history? - fears, dreams, desires, all confided to the magic genie of the search box in the mistaken belief that no one is watching? Meanwhile, behind the curtain, Google is performing semantic analysis of emails and search queries in order to aggregate and mine that data and deliver 'better' search results with more 'targeted' advertising. Who's interests is that in? Google is a publicly traded company after all, answerable to its shareholders, with an ultimate obligation to improve its bottom line. If that coincides with the well being of its users, all to the good, but should the interests of its users diverge from those of its shareholders, there is no telling whether or not Google will continue to do the 'right thing'.

Ultimately what the book left me thinking was just how much fun working at Google sounds. We are all confronted by the effects of some of the big issues Google is dealing with every day, but who wouldn't fancy setting the terms of the debate and the criteria to which everybody else has to respond? - The World According to Google - Keyword description


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