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Steven Levy’s “In the Plex,” on Google

By Siva Vaidhyanathan,

As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This concept has been the key to Google’s remarkable success. Google seems to read our minds. It delivers copious results to mundane queries. And it does so for free.

But believing in magic is unhealthy. If we fail to understand the nature of the technologies we invite into our lives, we risk being ruled by them, rather than ruling them. By demystifying even the most complex tools, we can learn to use them more wisely, criticize them intelligently, and admire the skill and craft that real human beings put into them. Steven Levy’s new book, “In the Plex,” demystifies Google fully, laying bare the company’s outsized ambitions and prodigious talents.

Levy is America’s premier technology journalist. Now a senior writer for Wiredmagazine, for years he explained the complexities of computers and the Internet to a general readership as Newsweek’s chief technology reporter. At Wired, he has a more tech-savvy readership. But he has lost none of his flair for digesting the complex into the comprehensible. In his previous work, he explained to us that hackers were not all evil troublemakers and that the iPod’s brilliance was in its simplicity of design — what Clarke would call magic. Levy is a Silicon Valley insider who writes for the rest of us on the outside.

“In The Plex” follows many other Google books. Some writers, such as Ken Auletta, author of “Googled,” used their substantial access to the company’s leaders to explain its remarkable commercial success and boldness of vision. Others, such as Randall Stross in “Planet Google,” have tried to explain the tech giant’s creative processes. Still others, such as Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do”, concentrated on how business leaders and others might learn from Google’s success.

Levy distinguishes his book from its predecessors by delivering a detailed yet stirring intellectual history of many of the company’s major innovations, from the initial breakthroughs in search algorithms to the development of Gmail and the Android mobile operating system that runs millions of smart phones around the world. If you have ever wondered how Google manages to translate Web pages written in Telugu into Malayalam without the expertise of hundreds of South Asian linguists sitting at terminals, Levy has the answer. However, not even he can explain what Wave, Google’s failed communication platform, was supposed to do.

Levy has a way of outlining the challenges faced by Google’s elite corps of engineers, then explaining how these characters applied their particular skills and backgrounds to that problem, and ultimately how the solutions worked their way into the Google experience. Others have tried to make Google’s problem-solving processes intelligible and gripping. Levy has outdone them all. He has produced the most interesting book ever written about Google. He makes the biggest intellectual challenges of computer science seem endlessly fun and fascinating.

Levy does not attempt, as some others have, to outline the larger societal consequences of Google’s triumphs. There is not much space amid the narrative techniques, colorful characters and impressive accounts of brilliance and innovation for deep consideration of what has happened to us as a result of Google’s spectacular 12-year ascendancy. Delivering social, cultural, and economic analyses is not one of Levy’s strengths.

The author has spent substantial time with Google’s principals, and therefore has been immersed in Google’s principles. Often he seems to have given Googlers the benefit of the doubt about their own intentions. He accepts the company line that Google’s two most glaring privacy debacles — the bizarre and inexplicable collection of Wi-Fi data from open hubs by Google cars taking photos for its Street View maps and the violation of Google’s own privacy policies through the poorly conceived Buzz social networking service — were mere glitches. Instead, I would suggest, these were gross errors of judgment (both inviting heavy governmental scrutiny and potential liability) almost guaranteed by the company’s arrogance. It’s not hard to slip from believing one is doing no evil to believing one can do no wrong.

Rather quickly, Google has not only stepped up to rule the Web in much of the world (China and Russia stand as notable exceptions) but also has become the lens through which we view and assess the world. Despite the recent rise of Facebook as Google’s chief competitor for attention and thus advertising, don’t expect Google’s revenues or influence to wane any time soon. Levy’s account of Google’s audacious culture of brilliance and innovation explains why. We can expect many more books about Google. But few will deliver the lively, idea-based journalism of “In the Plex.” It’s for the rest of us to make sense of the moral and social implications of what this powerful company has wrought.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia and the author of “The Googlization of Everything and Why We Should Worry.”

IN THE PLEX How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives By Steven Levy Simon & Schuster. 424 pp. $26

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