What it’s really like inside Google X.
Monday briefing always overruns. You never get a chance to pitch your moonshot (our name for ‘projects’). A bus on stilts. Nobody enjoys the morning commute with the embarrassing eye contact and the intermittent cell phone signal. Why not make it quicker by having the bus literally overtake all other traffic? Sure, there’d be problems with anything that hangs over a road — like the lights and phone lines and power lines and bridges etc — but when did genius inventions ever get abandoned because of minor problems? Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t quit inventing his locomotive because nobody had laid any tracks yet, right?
You work in pods. You don’t have your own cubicle. It doesn’t make much difference as the six employees sitting at compass points around an app-monitored coffee machine all work on different projects and all speak different languages. Headphones are banned. The idea is that you will all pick up a different language and will also chip in with different ideas about different moonshots but, in reality, the office space is silent apart from keystrokes and the only thing you’ve learnt is ‘it’s broken’ in Korean.
You email your moonshot commander your latest thoughts on the spoon design. You’re working on a spoon that adjusts to the tremors of a shaking hand. You received images of the latest spoon prototype on Friday. You’d spent all weekend thinking over your response.
‘It doesn’t look sufficiently like a spoon,’ you type. You search ‘spoon’ in Wikipedia before finishing the message. ‘Spoons have a shallow bowl.’
You add a PS to the email:
‘Has anyone ever considered elevated transport? Like a bus on stilts? Happy to share some mouth-time on this.’
Kristian, a Swede, turns to you and mutters something in Swedish. You nod and smile, thinking he must be the only Scandinavian not to speak English.
The canteen is windowless, but the expanse of one long wall is a seamless HD screen. You are obliged, as with your co-workers, to vote via an app for a different scene every lunchtime. For a while now, most vote for the first option — Arizona. This will continue until an email is sent from a senior manager, instructing you all to select a more varied lunchtime scenario.
Set into the long wall opposite the screen are a number of what look like microwaves. You press a button and request a dish. You may ask for any dish that comes to mind. Today, you ask for Beef Stroganoff. You often request Beef Stroganoff.
‘Your selection of Beef Stroganoff is not currently available. Please try again.’
You ask for a tuna salad. Thirty seconds pass before the microwave pings. You open the door and retrieve your tuna salad.
These aren’t Star Trek food synthesisers. There is a party of food workers behind the wall.
There are nex-gen Nexus tablets set into the canteen tables. People do not talk. People spill food onto the tablet screens. The canteen always reminds you of a shit airport from the future.
At two o’clock, the lights of the entire complex are shut off. The computer monitors turn to black. The voice of Sergey Brin is transmitted through the gloomy space.
‘Today,’ he says. ‘I want you to think about the joy of children.’
The lights come back on. You catch the eye of Kristian. He smiles. But not for too long, as he knows that all facial movements are tracked by the webcam installed in the monitor bezel.
You spend the rest of the afternoon assembling a slideshow of spoons. You decide upon an art deco theme for the overall presentation.
At 1655, a new appointment is added to your calendar.
Meeting with Ella, 1700.
You take your Nexus and leave for Ella’s office.
Ella’s office looks exactly like a teenager’s bedroom. The first time you entered you thought you were the victim of a MTV-style hidden camera prank. Even when she explained that research showed 13–19 to be the peak creative years and that this justified having her office replicate her own teenage bedroom, you weren’t sure. You were distracted by the poster of Justin Timberlake that looked down from the wall.
Today, Ella addressed you from her bed. She pattered the pink duvet cover and had you come join her. She held a soft toy. It was a pink unicorn.
‘This won’t take long,’ she said. ‘One — completely agree re: spoons. Could you design a slideshow of spoons for our engineers?’
‘Have done already,’ you say.
‘Two — Bus on stilts, awesome idea, have added it to the employee aspirational list, but, beware, they’re a bit nervous about transportation moonshots ever since the self-driving car was rear-ended. And, three, now that the spoon thing is coming to an end, I want you to assemble as much information on showers as you can.’
‘Showers,’ you note on your Nexus and ‘Like bathroom showers?’ you ask.
‘Yeah,’ says Ella. You add ‘(bathroom)’ to your note. ‘Their history, their effectiveness, their development. What’s hot in the shower world. Because …’ She turns to you, her face alight with smiling, ‘… we’re planning a waterless shower. That’d be a world-changing concept, right.’
‘Don’t be evil,’ she says as you leave. It’s most middle-managers’ preferred good-bye.
You begin your research on the bus home. All around you, people’s faces are lit up by their phones. It looks almost like each one is carrying a single candle in their laps, mourning a lost family member.
‘Showers,’ you think. It’s a definite step up from spoons. You do well on this moonshot and they’ll have you working on the space elevator, for sure.
Your cell’s signal fails. You look out of the window. But all that’s out there is darkness.