Allen Lane, £20, 416pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Simon & Schuster, £18.99, 432pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
I'm Feeling Lucky, By Douglas Edwards
In the Plex, By Steven Levy
Friday 22 July 2011
The intellectuals used to talk about Fordism, then post-Fordism. But surely they will have to start talking about Googlism. The more you realise the length of Google's ten-year journey - from scrappy, sweet-chewing start-up to dictionary verb and world-straddling info system - the more you seek to understand this pervasive and powerful structure: an enterprise strung somewhere between Darwinian struggle and cognitive purism. Both of these books are extremely useful insider guides.
Douglas Edwards - a fortysomething liberal-arts major with a smart wife and two young kids - came into Google from the marketing end of the Californian newspaper business. He had been used to dealing with grouchy journos, rigid job demarcations and slow-moving corporate cultures. He walks into the maelstrom of a start-up full of twentysomethings where visitors genuinely wonder "who trashed the chairman'ss office?" It's the lifestyle chaos of co-founder Larry Page.
But Edwards's greatest challenge as Google's first brand manager - concerned about language, image, the subtle niches of consumer desire - is that none of that really matters to Page and Sergey Brin, his partner. There is nothing beyond "research, analytics, testing and iteration" for them - all in the service of a pure ideal of making all the world's information searchable.
Edwards gamely tries to keep up. Meantime, a hive of quants and software engineers hurl themselves against insuperable technical problems that become superable in weeks. As he says, "I had read Ogilvy on Advertising to prepare for my career. Sergey had read Origin of the Species."
Edwards consistently fails to provide Brin or Page with the "hard data" that can justify this line of copy or that change of logo colour. When he tries to mitigate what he thinks are the wackier suggestions from the founders - which end up implemented anyway at 3am - he admits he was usually wrong. Online ads customised by users? Too open, too risky, says Edwards. But AdSense became the cash cow that fuelled their future.
At the core of Google, the cool and revolutionary invention comes first, with an image of the practical "user" replacing that of the febrile "consumer". For the most part, Edwards wryly bobs along in the tumult of a company of engineers seized by algorithmic passion. They only very occasionally wonder how their next connection of one part of the information landscape to the other might play in media or public life.
To his humanistic credit, Edwards anticipates at an early stage where this vision and arrogance might lead the later Google - into a thicket of concerns about privacy and confidentiality. Edwards always wanted the company to shift its identity from just a great search engine to being a trustworthy partner in cyberspace. The very mechanics of Google - the collection of "beautiful, irreplacable data" from all its users to improve search results and tweak services - flagged up the dangers.
If the company slogan "Don't be evil" meant anything, it meant being transparent about the extent of its powers. This should also serve the bottom-line: other search engines might promiscuously mix paid-for links in its search results, but not Google. Edwards runs a series of David Brent-ish corporate seminars to flesh out these values.
But then, in one far-off cubicle, a Googler privately builds and begins to test Gmail, which generates ad links from scanning your mail topics - exactly the kind of overreach the branding man warns against. But Page sees it, tries it, likes it and says "go ahead".
There is a kind of cognitive aristocracy about this, suggests Edwards, brewed up in the elite tech universities from which most of the Googlers were gathered. We've hired the best, you believe in the company's values, these values are good - so don't wait for permission.
On the upside, it creates startling innovations - like the 20 percent rule, where Google employees are allowed to take that proportion of their working time to pursue their own technical passion (a rule that, if applied generally, would cause an occupational revolution).
On the downside, as Edwards says, this "vision burned so brightly it scorched everything that stood in its way - including customers... an impatience with those not quick enough to grasp Google's obvious truths". However, his frustrations and occasional humiliations quite literally paid off. When Google went public in 2004, and he handed over his job to a more data-crunching successor, Edwards makes it clear that his stock options left him in a world where grocery bills and family holiday costs are no longer an anxiety. He still regards Google as trying to do no evil - but in a messy, youthful hurry: "This was a headlong rush to reshape the world in a generation"
In the even-toned manner of previous tomes from the likes of Ken Auletta and Jeff Jarvis, Steven Levy's In the Plex is a more reportorial overview of the Google empire. He picks up the threads from where Edwards leaves the building in 2005, and usefully elaborates on his anxieties about Google's hubris. Levy is concise on their Chinese débâcle (entering the country while compromising their search results, and leaving when the state started to hack individual accounts), and their struggle over the right to digitise books. The founders again displayed total incomprehension that their best info-intentions could be doubted.
Levy has a good recall for the telling scene. One is where Bill Gates is caught stomping around like a parsimonous old geezer, wondering why Gmail needs so many gigabytes of memory ("what are they storing in there? Powerpoints, movies?"). The point is that the Google kids simply presume the cloud of digital plenitude is out there.
He also has antennae out for the slightly chilling post-human instincts of the core culture, from which Brin can blithely state an ambition for Google to become "the third half of your brain" (maybe involving an implant at some point). Not only is their phone operating system called Android, but their first phone was called Nexus One: Nexus Six was the product-name of the Adonis-like replicants in Blade Runner.
Levy witnesses a hilarious scene where Marissa Mayer complains that an early design of the new browser Chrome "looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where... our products are machine-driven. That's what makes us great." Their recent investments in self-driving robot cars now seem less of an executive folly, from this perspective. Scanning their environment, guiding themselves by Google Maps, "this is all information", says an engineer.
Yet how piquant, as Levy notes, that their great current rivals Facebook take their energy from a different, much more sweatily human place: the recommendations and bletherings of personal friends, rather than some great "algorithmic exploitation of the web's intelligence". Although in both, our clicking and typing is being finessed for the benefit of advertisers, presuming a growth-based consumer economy that might not be that well founded.
Can the Googlers reconcile their energy-gulping visions of digital plenty with the material scarcity of a finite planet? I'd be confident - from these accounts – that a few cubicles in the Googleplex are already working on it. With two Stanford flunk-outs peering over their shoulders.
Pat Kane's forthcoming book is 'Radical Animal' (www.radicalanimal.net)
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