Steven Levy’s “In The Plex” covers the evolution of Google from a dissertation idea at Stanford to a company that has influenced this country in an unprecedented way.  Levy explains the technology of search and the foundation of Google, PageRank, whereby a series of algorithms aggregates the data of the users and uses it to rank websites.  He also explains the flip side of the Google coin, the business model, which is based on advertising buying and selling with prices determined by auction.  He delves into Google’s famously unique culture of “engineers rule,” free food and company massages and notes the interesting culture shift that occurred when the company went public and the personnel went from middle class to decidedly not.  Levy describes how Google flourished by slowly seeping into hundreds of small markets; they have so many projects going that their failures are largely negligible from a business point of view.  He then turns to the privacy issues and the disaster in China and how the company was forced to look at the social implications of its technology, particularly in restrictive countries.  Of course, in the end, they decided to withdraw from the biggest emerging market in the world, an innovative solution although questionably sustainable.  Levy writes about Google’s current battles; its exponential success has triggered distrust among the public, the government and, of course, its tech rivals.

Levy’s examination of Google is impressively thorough and he generally does a good job of explaining the technical aspects of its product in a way that feels relevant, interesting and digestible for those of us without a computer science background.  But, his writing doesn’t appear objective; Levy seems like a huge Google fan and someone in awe of their technology, success and omnipresence.  That point of view leads him to harp on the amazing technology and unique management style and culture and gloss over problems within the company.  He hardly ever criticizes Page and Brin; though he acknowledges they aren’t perfect, he gives them a free pass because he’s deemed them technology and business wunderkinds.   (That’s not to say they aren’t but the lack of criticism for them throughout the book is suspicious).  Furthermore, he only touches on the seismic implications of a company who has infiltrated the lives of 218.5 million Americans.  He constantly reiterates Google’s various mantras:  What’s good for the public, the internet, the users…is good for Google but fails to really question whether or not that’s true.

Levy quotes one of the Google execs as imagining a world in which Google can predict the exact information you’re searching for before you finish typing your own thought.  So search results will come up for you to choose before you even have time to think about whether that’s what you’re looking for.  And even if it’s not, you’re thinking about it now.  Google would literally be finishing your thoughts.  The idea of a complex algorithm determining the actual thoughts of millions of people is pretty disturbing not to mention the implications if it could somehow be weighted or rigged, even in a small way.  For example, say ten people separately go to Google and start their search with the word “chicken.” One person is looking for chicken recipes, one is looking for information about chicken farms, another is looking for the book chicken little, etc.  Still, they each start by typing the word chicken and Google instantly shows results before they finish their search term.  Now, all of these people are seeing the same search results, the most popular ones for chicken.  Perhaps, nine of these people don’t pay attention and simply finish narrowing their search.  But one gets distracted and, pushing aside his or her original thought, clicks on one of the initial search results.  Suppose this happens over and over again as the thought processes of the searcher and the Google algorithm become harder to distinguish.  That could slowly squeeze out alternative points of view, in effect, the opposite of the long tail but for thought.

In the 2008 article Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr cites sociologist Daniel Bell who says there are certain “intellectual technologies” that cause humans to inevitably take on some of their qualities.   Carr also talks about the human brain and how malleable it is.  The Internet has certainly changed the way we think but is that a good thing? If we are all taking on qualities of the same technology, couldn’t that mean a decline in the diversification of thought?

The same thing is happening with Facebook.  Facebook wants to help you determine your likes, dislikes and activities by showing you what your friends are doing.  But, assuming your Facebook friends are people pretty similar to you isn’t following their lead going to discourage alternative ideas and perspectives? Essentially, it’s like being a Tea Party member and only tuning in to Fox News – you’ll never get the full story.  In that sense, what’s good for Google and Facebook may not be so good for the public after all.