28 July 2011
In Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, the twentysomethings who work at Microsoft are so cossetted by perks and freebies that they barely have lives outside the office “campus”. Reading this book’s picture of the early days at Google, one is tempted to suppose that the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, pored over Microserfs very carefully indeed: “Google encased us in a cocoon of essential services — on-site haircuts, on-site car washes, on-site dentist and doctor, free massages, free snacks, free lunch, free dinner, gaming groups, movie nights, wine and beer clubs,” and so on. If you worked at Google, Google was your life.
Douglas Edwards was “Google’s word guy” between 1999 and 2005, responsible for official text and “branding”. A former journalist with a literature degree, he portrays himself as a rather bemused outsider, indulges in a lot of retrospective office-politics point-scoring, and insists, with curious pride, on his utter lack of technical chops: apparently he never bothered to learn even basic HTML while at Google, nor did he take a few seconds to look up the definition of a “Java Virtual Machine” for the purposes of writing this book. He does, though, have a pretty line in wry tech metaphor, speaking at one point of a moment when “the kids went offline in the back seat of the Taurus”, or describing a colleague thus: “Her mind worked so quickly that her buffer overflowed, filling all available conversational space with a flurry of words.”
On his own account, though, Edwards had value precisely as a non-programmer, furnishing a humanistic corrective to the narrow software-engineer’s idea of “smart”. To the geeks’ mantra that the data don’t lie, Edwards responds sensibly: “I would discover, however, that data does lie. Sometimes the method of collecting it is flawed, sometimes it’s misinterpreted, and sometimes it provides only part of the answer.” Even Google’s famed algorithms couldn’t do everything: after belatedly conceding that advertising copy had to be screened by humans, the company eventually hired thousands of people to do it.
But then Google’s success has always been built on iterated failure. Its first social network, Orkut, was launched before Facebook but doomed by what one employee quoted here calls “tech snobbery”: it was starved of the resources it needed to scale up. Later on, Buzz and Wave came and went unlamented (and, in the case of the latter, uncomprehended by nearly everyone). Now the geekocracy are salivating over invites to Google+, the giant’s latest attempt to catch up with Twitter and Facebook.
Early on, Edwards warns that, since his story stops in 2005, “This book won’t delve deeply into Google’s current imbroglios over censorship, regulation, and monopoly.” But we do get some relevant prehistory. On September 11, 2001, employees were instructed to download all the text and HTML of news sites in order to display it on Google. “No one asked whether it was within our legal rights to appropriate others’ content,” Edwards comments laconically. He describes, too, a clever move in the early stages of Google’s book-digitization masterplan: at first, they scanned only product catalogues, knowing that no company would complain about free promotion. Page and Brin’s attitude to user privacy (retention and data-mining of search history, etc), meanwhile, appears little better than the notoriously contemptuous stance of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “I found few converts,” Edwards writes wistfully, “to my vision of users making fully informed decisions about the data they shared with us.”
Google, it seems, was run simply as Larry and Sergey’s fiefdom: “The only rules that applied were the ones they agreed upon.” Lords need their vassals, of course, and the founders are portrayed as curiously avaricious in terms of their “human resources”. Analysing a decision to hire someone instead of using him as a consultant, Edwards writes: “Larry and Sergey didn’t like renting intelligence when they could buy it. There are only so many really smart people in the world. Why not collect them all?”
What, then, did the self-congratulatorily superintelligent masters of Google actually accomplish with all these human Pokémon? They, er, found new ways to sell advertising. When they were still at Stanford, Brin and Page had argued that a search engine that ran ads had an obvious conflict of interest. So ads at first were considered “evil”, until they could be corporately blessed by labelling them “useful” instead (because “targeted” to the user’s “interests”), and presenting them separately from “organic” search results. Still, people who today find their Google results littered with zillions of useless splogs (spam blogs set up to catch popular search terms) might doubt that the company has sufficient motivation to clean up its listings: the splog-farmers, after all, are making money for Google as well as themselves by running its ads.
Google’s wholesale embrace of advertising might have had another pernicious, if more subtle, effect. “Ross had a PhD in aerospace robotics,” Edwards reports of one employee, “and notions of his own about how the ads system should develop.” One cannot help wondering about the loss to the world of flying robots that resulted from this change of field. Another Googler, Edwards reports, “led an effort to build one of the biggest machine-learning systems in the world — just to improve ad targeting.” Reading the story of this steady brain-drain from other disciplines (Google’s early network-hardware guy was actually a former brain surgeon), one recalls what the former Facebook engineer, Jeff Hammerbacher, told BusinessWeek earlier this year: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” The sad fact, of course, is that online adverts are now considered the best hope for survival by most of the “old media” that Google’s brilliant minds have worked so assiduously to render obsolete.