The Google Story

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives Book Review

I might be the biggest fan of Google I know. Every day I use my Android phone, check my Gmail, schedule dentist appointments on Google calendar, and save my docs to drive. Not to mention search for any question that pops into my mind with an “Ok Google”. And I love it. Google has improved my life in countless ways and has enabled me to grow into who I am. Naturally I wanted to learn more about Google’s story, so I picked up Steve Levy’s In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives and blazed through it.

Levy presents the story of Google starting with Larry and Sergey’s childhoods, through their first meeting at Stanford in 1995, until Larry’s take over as CEO in 2011 (when In The Plex was published). Levy’s personal impression of Google is unmistakable; he praises the company throughout the whole book. However he also touches upon some of Google’s past controversies such as the China dilemma, Books’ copyright lawsuit, and Buzz’s launch. Highlighting such hiccups enables discourse on the coming of age struggles that Google faced.

In some sense Google has been growing as a part of Larry and Sergey their whole lives, as the values they personally held became those of the company. Both Larry and Sergey went to Montessori school as children. The playful, experimental approach used in these schools found its way into Google culture as well. Google’s informal motto “Don’t be evil” sums up the company’s personality- simple, playful, and extraordinarily open. By adhering to their principled approach to business, Google was able to expand in areas that did not directly correlate with search but did correlate with the company’s principles. Google’s mission quickly grew from improving their search engine to the lofty goal of improving the world (which, in their eyes, involves improving search capabilities as well).

However, Google’s ambition to improve the world has brought the company into controversy as well, especially when Google’s decisions disrupt norms. Such was the case when Google decided to enter China in 2005. China was known for its strict censorship laws which starkly contrasted with Google’s emphasis on free access to information. Despite China’s censorship laws, the Google brain trust came to the decision that it would enter China under the justification that by entering China, the company would be able to push the country towards becoming a more open society. Accepting that they would not be able to change China’s censorship all at once, Google censored it’s own search results from showing websites which were already censored by other Chinese websites. This was obviously controversial, especially within Google itself. Google’s small push back on the Chinese government was a text dialog describing how many search results were being censored from each search. This all changed on January 12, 2010 when Google China was hacked. The security breach prompted Google to give an ultimatum to the Chinese government- Google would no longer censor it’s own search results. Although Levy ends the China discussion here, since then the Chinese government turns accessibility to google.cn and other Google domains on and off as it pleases.

Another instance of Google clashing with norms resulted in a publicized lawsuit between Google and the Authors Guild, which was only recently resolved on October 16, 2015. Google started scanning books in 2004 with the intention of creating a searchable database containing all books, copyrighted and non-copyrighted alike. Any company except for Google would be ridiculed for embarking on such a project. Google was acting on it’s grand mission of making every book in existence accessible to anyone with access to the Internet. Most non dictators in the world would agree that improved accessibility of books is a net improvement for the world. However in 2005 the Authors Guild sued Google for copyright infringement. The lawsuit prompted an interesting debate about copyright laws and fair use, which ultimately resulted in further refinement and deeper understanding of the laws themselves. In the end, the courts came to the decision that Google was acting within the laws of fair use and was acting in the best interest of the public.

Google’s unauthorized digitizing of copyright-protected works, creation of a search functionality, and display of snippets from those works are non-infringing fair uses.
 — Summary opinion of Judge Pierre Leval in Authors Guild v. Google, Inc

Creating a database of every book in the world is one thing, having access to every email, text message, search query, photo, and location is another matter entirely. Google has access to tons of information on nearly every Internet user. As Google has shown, this wealth of knowledge enables the construction of impressive and useful applications and features. However with access to so much information, misuse of that information is a valid concern.

This was the case with Google’s launch of Buzz in February 2010. In response to the success of Facebook, Buzz was one of Google’s initial attempts to enter the social media landscape. To ease the adoption of their new platform, Google automatically exported all contacts from a user’s Gmail account to their new Buzz profile. Buzz, like Facebook, enabled people to look at each other’s friends. In effect, the decision to automatically import contacts allowed friends to view all of your email contacts, which might be different, in potentially embarrassing ways, from the group of friends you would want to display on Facebook or another social media platform. Google quickly turned off the automatic import feature, but the negative publicity doomed the product. Interestingly, Levy doesn’t mention Buzz until the appendix. I on the other hand, thought it was one of the most interesting stories presented in the book. The failure of Buzz shows that unintentional misuse of private information is possible. For a company as large as Google, a seemingly benign feature can violate the privacy of millions of users and cause serious harm.

In the Plex was published in 2011, and since then there have been more interesting developments surrounding Google. Some topics not fully discussed in the book include automated cars, app engine, machine learning, image recognition, Google translate, the creation of Alphabet and the promotion of Sundar Pichai to CEO, and the list goes on. Google is far too big and too complex to explain completely in one book but Steve Levy does a good job at providing a baseline understanding of the company’s inner workings while also highlighting a few key interesting events. Overall I enjoyed reading and learning more about Google through In the Plex. Next, I look forward to reading Eric Schmidt’s co-authored book How Google Works, released in September 2014.