This is a tough time to write a book about Google. The first part of the story we pretty much know: Two Stanford brainiacs come up with an algorithm that reinvigorates Internet search. In the process they create unimaginable wealth for themselves and many others. For a time in the 1990s, it seemed like Google was destined to rule the Web forever.
Then we started hearing about a new kind of website that had little use for the algorithmic authority of Google, but instead emphasized chilling with your friends. While Facebook and other social media companies might be enjoying a bubble right now, there’s still a reasonable chance that they could permanently shrink the economic value of Google-style search, and with it, of Google itself.
In his new book, In the Plex (Simon & Schuster), technology journalist Steven Levy (previously a correspondent for Newsweek and now one for Wired) deals with this crossroads in the only way possible for someone with a contract to deliver a big book about Google in early 2011.
The volume is, for the most part, a straightforward chronological history of Google, beginning with Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford and ending with Eric Schmidt stepping aside as CEO in January and handing power back to the cofounders (Levy mostly avoids the often-whispered notion that Schmidt was never much more than a figurehead). Most of the book chronicles Google’s successes: How they came about, and the trouble they caused for the company as people gradually awoke to the economic force that the company had become. Google, for example, now undergoes intense privacy and antitrust screening in the U.S. and Europe in connection with virtually everything it does.
This is an old-fashioned book—which is meant as a high compliment in this era of facile punditry and 140-character attention spans. Lots of shoe leather was worn out during its reporting, and Levy’s writing is full of energy and drive.
As the titles of his earlier books—Insanely Great, about the Mac, or The Perfect Thing, about the iPod—make clear, Levy is enthusiastic about technology and tech companies. Anyone seeking a fundamental critique of Google’s cultural impact should instead read Nicholas Carr, author of articles such as “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
In the Plex tends to give Google the last word, but Levy also gives its critics a chance. An example is Google’s decision to scan all of the world’s books: the default position in the blogosphere is that objections from book publishers were the last gasp of a dying industry—akin to the Recording Industry Association of America’s initial opposition to the very idea of an MP3 player. Levy, though, gives ample room to those who argue, quite convincingly, that Google had arrogantly decided that its own ambitions were the best guide to the public’s interest, rather than mere trifles like copyright laws.