Even those who’ve criticized Google’s handling of the book-scanning matter will be fascinated by the details Levy has gathered about the logistical details of the undertaking, especially Page’s unrelenting advocacy of the idea.
In the Plex is strongest in Google’s early years. It describes the intellectual milieu in which PageRank was born; the extent to which Google engineers had to rework the code to make it scalable; how Google both stumbled and brainstormed its way into its successful business model; how it built out its data centers, expanded into new, nonsearch business, and experimented with management styles.
The richness of the storytelling declines with each passing year, as Levy gets closer to topics that are still of strategic importance. The company made executives available for interviews, but they obviously didn’t want to spill all the beans.
After reading the book, avid Google watchers will still want to know: Exactly how much money has YouTube made? What data did hackers get when they broke into Google servers last year? To what extent are Google monetization schemes polluting the very global information that the company says it is trying to democratize, with billions of Potemkin websites that exist only to generate search-driven AdWords checks?
Levy obviously admires Page and Brin, but allows for some unflattering details as well. In one anecdote, Page is presented with air-quality results suggesting that the impurity count inside Google’s offices was something like 0.0001 parts per million, which would normally be considered excellent. Page, though, wanted the number to be zero, and ordered the installation of expensive air filters, which no doubt had a significant carbon footprint.
The person telling Levy this story, rather than admitting that the boss might have gotten a little carried away, insisted the request was perfectly appropriate: “They smell things most of us don’t smell,” the person explained.