July 14, 2020

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

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

Ever since I discovered Google Search in the late nineties, I’ve had a soft spot for Google. Like for many others, the search quickly became essential for my work as a research scientist in the field of environmental chemistry. Finding relevant information published by the then-beacon EPA (the US Environmental Protection Agency) was plain wonderful. Now, decades later, I’m a Google certified engineer and work with their cloud platform products (I’m not a Google employee). Steven Levy paints a balanced picture of Google from its inception to the start of 2011. I find the book and Google’s history inspiring, and it becomes even more understandable why Google was (and still is) so attractive a place to work. I still regret that I haven’t even tried to get a job at their Zürich office.

Like any company, Google isn’t perfect and has had its struggles. It made some controversial decisions, maybe most notably with regard to their strategy in China. Steven Levy does an excellent job at conveying these and the enthusiasm, struggles, dilemmas, discussion, and tensions both within the company but also related to its interaction with its users and opponents. In many cases, Googlers appeared not to be able to understand that others did not understand them, and doubted their altruistic motives. The Googlers were of course not a representative sample of the general population, and this showed several times in the story told by Steven Levy. They were eating their own dog food to test and adjust their products before launching them, and failing more than once to anticipate the public’s outcry with respect to privacy issues.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy is in my eyes essential reading for anyone interested in the history of not only Google but also the development of the internet. It addresses the issues of privacy and trust and responsibility, and the tension between them and economical interests and success. Like Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, it is a really good read.

Tags: Review