In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives

September 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Also did you hear that Justin Beiber has syphilis?

Steven Levy, who’s written about hacker culture and who I’ve mentioned here a number of times, throws around a lot of names. It’s like reading an instruction manual in some places, which is better than the alternative I guess, but oh man it’s a lot of fucking detail. Given that the book is about Google’s ascendency, though, I guess datadump.gif is only appropriate. Anyway the funny thing was, when the book first arrived at my house, I’d randomly opened it up, stumbled upon an interesting passage then probably got distracted by whatever X-Files episode I was watching for the fifth time and lost my place. Then this morning I realized that That Thing was exactly what I wanted to write about, and was like, well shit how am I going to find it, the book’s seven thousand pages long. And then lightbulbs! Because lol I’ll just Google it! So I did, and thanks to Google Books, was directed to the exact passage.

But before I get to the interesting thing in question, let me back up some. I’m an absolute sucker for origin stories, love to know what people were like before they were famous or privately while they were famous, or what fights people had while putting together a famous thing, or who was in love with and/or slept with whom, or who wasn’t in love with and/or wouldn’t sleep with whom (those are the best stories), or whatever other information about everything except the thing itself. I mean things themselves are interesting, but I like to know how they got here, which is often the result of all those seemingly inconsequential details coming together in just the right or wrong ways at just the right or wrong moments. This is why the internet interests me, and is why, as dry as it can get, Levy’s account is exactly the kind of thing I’m drawn to — well, except for he kept out all the juicy personal details, which is a shame. But Google wasn’t always Google, it started out as a vague idea and through the intercession of like a million factors, some technological, some interpersonal, some an unexpected combination of both, grew into its own bones. Which brings me back to that one short passage, which jumped out at me because of my knee-jerk origins focus.

In a nutshell, LarryAndSergey were Montessori kids. They, along with their parents and handful of friends, all credit their various insane successes, and most interestingly their most notable shortcomings, to not being raised to give a shit about rules. If they felt like painting a goddamn picture after lunch, even if they’d already painted a picture right before lunch, then cool, let’s paint some shit. If they felt like going for a walk, they went walking. If they felt like indexing all the books in the world, you know, because they could, then they did. While other people –fellow PhDs, professors, business associates, competitors–would steer clear of various invisible fences because of threats of electrocution or whatever, L&S would be like, I don’t accept the premise of fences, are you coming or not? then shrug and go anyway when more cautious people would be like I can’t because fences. This impulse wasn’t always well-advised — sometimes they would indeed get electrocuted, but sometimes they’d walk right through and nothing would happen. Well except for all the billions they’d make. The important point is that fences never mattered to them. Love it or hate it, Google was founded on this one basic premise.

Of course everything is more complicated than childhood proclivities. But the metaphor appeals to me greatly, especially when thinking about technological innovation. Stuff is the way stuff is for very good but sometimes seemingly arbitrary reasons. Some of these reasons are interpersonal, say having to do with basic personality type or fortuitous professional alliance, while some are structural or institutional or the result of necessary workarounds or hacks or whatever — all pointing to the dizzying interplay between human creatures, the world(s) we live in, and the machines we build then weirdly end up framing as somehow inherently separate from us. When the truth is, none of this is magic. Everything comes from somewhere, and could have been otherwise. Personally I think this is very interesting.


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