Google, at scale

Steven Levy’s In the Plex starts and ends in familiar territory. It’s the story of Google, from dorm room start-up to accused monopolist and suspected data privacy violator.

Sounds cliché, and it is.  I read In the Plex on my iPad (sorry Google, you were late) so I can’t tell you how many pages in I was when Levy’s narrative grabbed me. I’d say it was about 30, when the company faced its first crisis. Their search engine was going viral, and traffic demands overwhelmed their servers, which were housed in Lego-constructed racks, mind you.

I’m an engineer by training, so, naturally, this excited me. Give me a good story about a technical problem and I’m hooked. Throw in some Legos and I’ll blog about it. (Apollo 13 is one of my favorite films for this reason. Not deep. Just deeply geeky. No Legos though and, correspondingly, I’ve never devoted a post to it.)

So it was the vast middle of the book that I enjoyed most, where Google met and overcame technical challenge after challenge. It’s there that I also learned that I was totally wrong about Google, a company whose products I thought I knew so well (though, to be honest, I never went looking for the deep background on how they worked). Each of Google’s server farms are, perhaps 1,000 times larger than I expected, cost vastly more than I thought ($1B a pop), and are a factor of 10 more numerous than I imagined. Google’s network (completely proprietary fiber optic — I did not know!) runs orders of magnitude more rapidly than I dared dream.

If you are at all like me (before reading In the Plex), whatever you think of Google, you’re totally wrong. Think bigger and faster. Now square it. And again. You’re getting close.

It came as no surprise, then, to read that Steve Jobs was enraged when Google entered the mobile telephone market. I’m talking, four letter word, chair throwing level anger. Steve Ballmer also had some, shall we say, “strong feelings” about Google. My take is that these are the sentiments of CEOs getting beat. You don’t blow your top about competition from a lightweight, after all. Jobs and Ballmer seem to be telling us that Google is winning. It’s munching Microsoft and eating Apple. That’s the impression Levy gives anyway.

But it’s not all fun and games when you’re the biggest name on the internet. Antitrust enforcers tend to notice what you do. Privacy advocates start to get “concerned.” And then there’s Facebook. Is it a Google killer?

Ultimately, In the Plex wraps up just where you’d expect it, depicting Google as an ossified version of its former self, falling behind in social media, and straining under the weight of intense scrutiny and public concern. Still, they’re number one in search and raking in the dough in the internet ads market. Not too shabby.

What will happen to Google? Beats me. But I am glad to have known the company and its products. They have made my life better, massively increasing my productivity in all things informational. Near the end of the book, Levy wrote,

Since its earliest days, Brin and Page have been consistent in framing Google as an artificial intelligence company — one that gathers massive amounts of data and processes that information with learning algorithms to create a machinelike intelligence that augments the collective brain of humanity. […]

Will the brain “implant” that Larry Page referred to in 2004 become a Google product at some point? (In late 2010, introducing the Google Instant search product […] Sergey Brin had repeated the sentiment: “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”)

It makes me wonder, what will the first commercial brain implant be called, the “iBrain” or the “Gmind”?  Whatever it is, let’s hope it isn’t a Microsoft product or a Facebook app. Oh, lord help us!

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