Author Steven Levy on ‘In The Plex’ and his Unprecedented Look at Google

Steven Levy

Steven Levy

Five years from now, will the engineers at Google have designed a supercomputer that tells you what you want, when you want it, and/or have enslaved the human race? Probably not. But if anyone outside the company’s inner circle could know the answer, it’s Wired Magazine Senior Writer Steven Levy. The Philly-native (and Temple grad) spent the past three years researching and writing his new book ‘In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives.’ It’s being branded the most inside look at Google’s operations ever written.

Reviews say In The Plex doesn’t rely on taking a stand on whether Google is helping or hurting our brains, but when we caught up with him ahead of his World Affairs Council-presented talk in Philadelphia, he had a few things to say about the search engine-turned-super-web-giant’s often-controversial dealings with privacy, as well as the future of the company and it’s competition with other web giants, like Facebook.

Here’s some of our talk with Levy:

On what it was like writing a book about a company constantly updating itself:

During the time I was doing the research on this book, things were changing for Google. The recession came, but most importantly they found people were beginning to have a different perception of Google. They sort of underwent a transformation from a David to a Goliath for a lot of people. It was really difficult for those at Google to adjust to it because their own belief that they are good [Google’s motto: “Don’t do evil”] was just so baked and built into them. So they had this trouble seeing why people would think otherwise.

If you think about things like the book settlement or their situation with the anti-trust and privacy, this new concept of who they were was difficult for them. On the other hand, on the engineering side, a lot of this still goes on and it’s fascinating to see how they try to use their brains and what they know about the internet with organizing things in a digital world to mitigate some of these problems. So I was there to see that process.

On Google’s troubles with privacy rights:

Basically when groups for civil liberties and privacy rights groups talk to Google or complain about Google, [co-founder and current CEO Larry Page] sees them as not advocates of his users but as interest groups out to get him. There are a few people at Google who talk about that [in the book]. There are a few people at Google who are concerned about that perception for the company. I’ve even watched as they’ve chosen not to roll out certain features because even though they’re convinced it’s not an invasion of privacy, people might think it is.

Specifically, I’m thinking about face recognition software. It’s the software that they put in phones that identifies faces the same way you’d put in a word search query. They said, ‘we could do this but people would freak out, they would say it’s big bad Google, so we’re not going to do it.’

On Google’s public steps to curb privacy concerns:

[The company] have a lot of people on the policy and privacy side. They have this thing called the Privacy Council and I was the only journalist who was able to sit in on a meeting. They very seriously look at a product each time and they do a thing where privacy concerns are addressed during the development stage, as opposed to looking at a completed product and saying whether it’s a concern or not. They find it best to try to get the engineers to think about it even while they design the product.

On Google’s potential competition with Facebook:

You look at Facebook they have this big bet on the idea that [privacy concerns are] a generational thing. The people over 30 [years old] have a different view of privacy in general that comes with the Internet. So far, that seems to be paying off for them. Google is still more of the traditional view.

But I think in general when you ask people in a survey if they’re worried about privacy, they say yes. But then you look at their behavior and they behave in a way that exposes personal information quite frequently.

[…]

[Creating a product to compete with Facebook is] a big initiative of the company right now. I write a little bit toward the end of the book, actually a whole chapter at the end of the book, of Google’s efforts in the social space. I also talk a little bit about the origins of the current social networking thing they’re working on, which we haven’t seen yet. It just came out in the last week that Larry Page is going to base 25 percent of everyone at Google’s bonuses next year on the success of their new social efforts.

They’re not trying to build a ‘Facebook killer,’ but they’re trying to figure out a way within the spirit of the product strategy, to come up with things where people could do some of the things socially that they would do elsewhere on the web. I think the ultimate payoff for Google would be social products that interacted with other web-based social products, particularly Facebook. Because I think Google’s interested in accessing and organizing the world’s information and if all this information about what people like and what they want to do and everyone’s interests isn’t available in Google, that’s a big problem. That’s what really underlies that urgency to be playing in this world.

On his own access to the company:

Essentially, I think the general understanding of my book was giving a journalist – whose work they knew, who’s been covering Google since really the beginning – covering the company, and I think they felt giving someone access would show the airplane view of Google. They know they’re not perfect but the overall picture was one that would be positive. And in a way it is. I feel good about Google in a number of ways. Though of course, I didn’t look away when I found something to be critical of.

Interested? Steven Levy is stopping by Arden Theater Company (40 N. 2nd Street) tomorrow night and will be interviewed by Jonathan Takiff of the Philadelphia Daily News. The whole thing starts at 6:15 (if you’re into wine and cheese) with the program going on at 7.

Image: StevenLevy.com

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