Google is not just a search engine today, but the world’s largest artificial intelligence. It gathers a substantial amount of public and private information about a large portion of the human population and their doings. Using clever algorithms it chomps through this vast morass of data, and distills it to a form that can be useful to humans. In what seems right out of a dystopian novel, the mantra of this mega corporation is “Don’t be evil!”
The headquarters of Google is housed in an edifice called the Googleplex. The author Steven Levy, most famous for his epic Hackers, was given priority access to the happenings at the ’Plex for a few years. Distilled from his experiences and interviews there comes his latest book In The Plex. Starting quite interestingly, from Ragihalli, a village near my home of Bengaluru, the book trudges through seven chapters and an epilogue that gives the reader a complete picture of the history, growth and people behind this all-pervasive mega corporation.
Starting as a search engine developed by two Stanford University PhD students, Google grew to every domain imaginable: email, documents, photos, news, maps and cellphones. Such phenomenal speed and success was only possible by hiring the brightest minds of the world and providing them a work environment free of bureaucracy and perks such as free food. This genius pool helped Google to not just improve their existing projects, but also sparked innovation in the 20% of creative time that were allowed to have. The sponsorship for all these elaborate efforts came from online advertising, which Google was able to turn into a multi-billion-dollar cash cow.
Despite the pretty picture, Levy also shows how Google is no utopia. Ignoring its own slogan, Google entered the China market by agreeing to censor results as the government wished. After a long-drawn and exasperating operation out of China, it recently shuttered the Google China effort. By scanning copyrighted books on the sly without informing the publishing world, Google behaved in a way that harked back to the dark days of Microsoft. It did an U-turn on net neutrality, first fighting for it and later opposing it for wireless internet access, in what one can only presume is to bolster its Android product.
The epilogue looks at Google’s blunders as it tries to catch up in the social networking sphere. Despite gaining an userbase of millions in Brazil and India, Google ignored its Orkut and treated it like a pariah. Denied manpower and computing resources, Orkut is now on its inevitable demise. Not all Googlers or startups bought by Google have prospered either. Scores of them left to help Facebook and Twitter, the social networking upstarts of today. And Google continues to throw everything it can at social networking, products like Wave, Buzz and +1, all of which have failed to hit the mark.
Much like Hackers, In the Plex has the trademark storytelling style of Steven Levy. This makes the book engrossing, but can sometimes get a bit too verbose for the techie reader. Taking on a subject as massive as Google, Levy has deftly partitioned the tale so that the reader is never overwhelmed. Levy is no stranger to mega software corporations, and that experience helps in giving a balanced picture of the inner workings of Google. In The Plex is unquestionably the must-read book this year for the tech oriented reader.