Philly native's "in the Plex' gives inside scoop on Google

Levy is a tech writer for Newsweek and Wired magazines.
Levy is a tech writer for Newsweek and Wired magazines.
Posted: April 13, 2011

THE GIZMO: Digging "In the Plex," Steven Levy's new book on "How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives" (Simon & Schuster, $26).

MAGIC MAKERS: The wizards of Silicon Valley often hype their hardware/software breakthroughs as "magical" for the products' ability to pull off dazzling stunts in the blink of an eye. And true to the magicians' code, these tech talents rarely let mere mortals peer behind the curtains.

That's what makes Levy's just-out tome so valuable. A longtime tech scene chronicler for Newsweek and Wired (and a Philadelphia native), Levy has been on Google's case since 1999, "practically since the company's beginnings," he shared in a recent conversation. Levy will speak tomorrow at a World Affairs Council event hosted by yours truly.

For his book, he got "unprecedented" access to the movers and shakers in the organization, starting with co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Levy even partied 'round the world with Google, in the prologue sharing his journey to distant Google installations with a bunch of the company's rising stars.

But clearly he managed to maintain a sense of balance about the search-engine colossus, acknowledging its weaknesses and strengths, its could-have-beens (like precursors to Facebook and Twitter) and its home runs (like the Android smartphone operating system and its $1.6 billion purchase of YouTube, which Levy predicts "will become a full-fledged streaming rival to cable and satellite TV").

WHERE ALL THE CHILDREN ARE ABOVE AVERAGE: Brin and Page are products of the Montessori educational system, which encourages independent thought and argues against artificial "right or wrong" ways of doing things. Levy suggests this helps explain why the now mid-30s pair have always been able to think really big - with their dream of gathering and organizing all the world's information for everyone to access - and to see past pesky obstacles like copyright laws and know-it-all naysayers. The latter included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Google, through its formative years, operated in a liberated, Montessori-like atmosphere where young geniuses were pretty much set loose on complex projects. And got a goodly share of time to dream up cool new stuff.

WHAT DRIVES THE GOOGLE ENGINE? In his book's early chapters, Levy patiently explains how an Internet search engine works. You might want to take notes.

It boils down to statistical modeling on a super-grand scale, creating a computer algorithm that goes fishing on the 'Net for recurring appearances and associations of key words and topics, instantly creating a hierarchy of importance. Every speck of information is stored in Google's own servers, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, to help speed the search process to mere milliseconds. Magic!

A Google search also is weighted by factors secret and logical. Did a newspaper account of the Secretary of State refer to her as "Hillary Rodham Clinton" or just "Hillary"? The former will be taken more seriously.

As the amount of information on a topic builds (or "scales"), the engine's returns become even more accurate. Now, with the engine processing billions of information requests a day, you only have to type the first few letters of a search word and you're off and running.

Google has become the Zen master of artificial intelligence - operating, as Brin gleefully half-jokes, as "the third half of your brain."

THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH: Levy doesn't take a stand, as other chroniclers have, on whether our reliance on Google makes us smarter or dumber. But he raises red flags about Google's ability to know and spit back more information about us than we might like.

While the company lives by the credo "Don't Do Evil," its huge success ($26 billion in annual revenue) and ever-expanding reach have been built on semi-intrusive, predictive advertising. You're searching for "gyms" and the screen serves up ads for athletic wear. You want food blogs, it also touts restaurants and kitchen supply stores nearby.

Getting customized advertisements while doing Web searches has never been a problem for users, Google research has determined. "But when those associative ads started showing up in your Gmail [account], keyed to words in your personal correspondence, people found it creepy, even though the process is totally automated," said Levy.

That "big brother is watching you" fear also popped up as Google took to the satellites and streets to map our world and track our paths, in the process capturing images of folks doing risky business and sunbathing au naturel on their roof.

Google reconnaissance vehicles also stockpiled personal information from computer users who were working on unsecured Wi-Fi hot spots - a since-disabled drive-by search tool created by an engineer dismissed by Google as a "rogue" operative.

"But aren't they all?" Levy asks.

THE CHINA SYNDROME: Lots more problematic was Google's entry into the Chinese market, where the company was forced into a hypocritical corner, restraining the free flow of information that didn't meet the government's favor. Then Google China inadvertently revealed dissidents' online activities when the system was hacked. While closing its China operation, Google is still licking wounds over that evil affair.

JOIN OUR CONVERSATION: You're welcome to attend the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia's conversation with Steven Levy (and Jonathan Takiff) tomorrow at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St. Reception and program (starting at 6:15 p.m.), $45, free for council members; program only (7 p.m.), $15, $10 students. Reservations at 215-561-4700 or www.wacphila.org.

Send e-mail to takiffj@phillynews.com.

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