Sunday, January 6, 2019

In the Plex

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
pub. 2011 Steven Levy
437 pages

Full disclosure: I was a passionate Googler ten years ago, an early adopter of anything that the Mountain Brook, CA firm produced -- even programs like GoogleDesktop, which I never even used. It was when Google devoured YouTube and started making its mark on there that the plucky upstart of the internet started looking a little more dangerous -- and with every passing year I've become a little more concerned about the amount of internet traffic Google controls.   Regardless of whether one trusts or fears Google, however, it is an incredible company with extraordinary influence on the web. In the Plex is a fanboyish history of how it came to be, from its early origins in a dorm room to its present goliath state, with various aspects of Google's culture and various products being examined in turn.

Those of us logged into the English-speaking net scarcely need to know what Google began as:  Google's initial product was so successful that it's wormed its way into our language. What is most remarkable about Google is how it changed the internet, and changed expectations.  That story really begins with Gmail -- a product which was produced by a Google employee on the side, then officially sanctioned once the triumvirate in charge of Google had experienced it.  Gmail's enormous free storage option -- an entire gigabyte of storage, an amount that flabbergasted Bill Gates when he heard of it --  allowed people the luxury of never having to delete their mail. That didn't just mean they no longer had to save everything to their computers; it meant they could keep every little thing from conversations to emailed receipts online, and considering how much use emails get by other websites, that could mean a sizable amount of their lives would now be shared with Google.  Prior to Google and facebook, privacy was a web hallmark;  unless you were a network engineer monitoring ISP traffic, people couldn't tell who you were unless you told them -- and I was encouraged to not tell or trust anyone. It took years of conversation between close AIM friends before I'd consent to voice chat, let alone sending picture.

Gmail changed that, and it wouldn't be the last time Google changed our expectations about what normal online. Now instead of seeing ads that were  static billboards, erected on websites in the hopes of catching some eyes,  the web would be increasingly filled with very personal ads -- solicitations to buy a book we'd just been looking at online,  ads in Spanish after using DuoLingo or watching Butterfly Spanish on Youtube,  announcements of Caribbean cruises after GoogleMaps is used to look at the Mexican coast.  GoogleMaps' associated project, Latitudes, even tracked users locations --  if they wanted. And when Google ventured into the smartphone market and purchased Android,  location tracking became the norm....and even if user try to opt out, on some level it still occurs because the phone has to communicate with cell towers and satellites.   Other projects were even more controversial, like Google's desire to start scanning the world's books and provide them for free, online.

Google is an unusual company in that it started with the ambition of a nonprofit: to make the world a better place. Levy believes this philosophy is real and still guides Googled despite their incredible wealth and influence on the web.  And there's no denying that Google's products have transformed the internet in a positive way;  GoogleMaps alone is an incredible tool, offering not only maps but information layered within the maps -- reviews of restaurants, the ability to see the street's landmarks, to browse through user-submitted photos.  YouTube, too, isn't just a place for funny clips: it holds hour upon hours of educational content, and allows people to pursue their interests and passions.  Between Google Search, Maps, and YouTube,  we  have the computer databanks of the Enterprise-D at our command.

I thoroughly enjoyed this history of Google  and its facets, but  keep in mind it's written by an ardent admirer, whose love for "cool" firms like Google and Apple manifest itself in a nasty contempt for others, like Microsoft.. He refers to Microsoft employees as "Gates' minions", which makes Levy sound like less a serious author and more like a blogger with an axe to grind.  Levy's admiration for Google also means he doesn't fully examine the  potentials for abuse inherent in one company running so much internet traffic. Chrome, for instance, has virtually taken over, and Microsoft is building a new Edge browser around its source code Chromium. What will it mean when 80% of web traffic is Chrome-based?


  1. i do wonder about the future... whether evil forces will take over and force people to abandon the whole idea, or whether good intentions will prevail and maintain a moral web culture...

    1. If the book I'm reading now is any indication, it's going to be a wild ride, with fewer threats from platforms than the people ON them -- users.

  2. Software developers will breathe a sigh of relief when everyone's using the same browser! ;) But from a personal, non-technical perspective, I agree... the trend towards monopoly is disturbing, especially when it's reaching into most areas of our lives.


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.