Right now, however, their Silicon Valley-based employer is drastically readjusting its original mission, laid out in a famously magisterial press release in 1999, “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Having gone quite a way towards achieving the goal of soaking up everything humanity has ever known, Googlers are now being urged to understand that turning uncounted trillions of pieces of data into more trillions of pages of retrievable information was a mere baby step in a march towards something much grander and less tangible: the getting and disseminating of knowledge.
It means, effectively, teaching computers to think; to figure out precisely what a user might want to know, find it and then package it up so it can be digested in the shortest possible time and in the most useful possible manner.
Right now, a Google search will undoubtedly find you a PhD dissertation on, say, the expansion of the universe or the potential effect of glacial melting on the people of the subcontinent. But it might deliver you 300 pages. Google’s archbishop of search, Amit Singhal, thinks that’s a waste of time for most ordinary people. The useful dissemination of knowledge, to him, would be for Google’s computers to work out, in the blink of an eye, what those 300 pages were actually arguing and then synthesise it all into an easily understood but objective precis that takes into account the essential points and counterpoints. Not just information, but knowledge.
As well as Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who are all but worshipped at the Googleplex (Google’s sprawling campus in the aptly named town of Mountain View, south of San Francisco), Singhal is among the company’s most revered figures.
If Google, as some contend, is as consequential to the modern world as Johannes Gutenberg was to the Renaissance, Amit Singhal is a sort of super-charged Melvil Dewey of the digital age.
In 1876, Melvil Dewey revolutionised libraries. His Dewey decimal system, still used, meant any book could easily be found and returned to its proper place, just as Singhal and his team constantly tweak algorithms to enable Google’s search engine to pluck information from the ether and order it in descending levels of importance.
As Good Weekend is ushered in to meet him, an aide whispers, “You are about to meet The Visionary.” It sounds over the top, and may also be a nod to his age, 43 – old in Google years – but a few moments with Amit Singhal challenge any preconceived notions about computer nerds.
“I think search is rather inadequate,” he says of the work that has taken 20 years of his life, 10 of them at Google. “I can’t even ask it for simple information like, ‘Do mosquito nets that are laced with anti-insect spray work more effectively than mosquito nets that are not laced with insect spray?’, for instance,” he says.
“Search might give some result, but you can’t rely on it.” Information is fine, but turning it into knowledge is mightier. The future.
Therein lies an unspoken fear. There are one million people employed in NASDAQ-listed high-tech businesses in Silicon Valley alone. A lot of those people, plus millions more across the world, are working on their own ideas about snatching the future.
No one can guarantee their conceits will last; not even Google, disrupter of everything from traditional media’s advertising revenue to retailers of printed books and GPS systems. (Google Maps, invented in Australia, bought by Google and still run from Sydney, very nearly destroyed the business plans of sat-nav companies that once charged monthly fees for something Google has made free.)
Early this year, Eric Schmidt – the current executive chairman, who was Google’s CEO before Page took back the job in April – declared there were just four truly significant technology companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. Apple controlled the high-end hardware like iPhones, iPads and Macs, Amazon had wrapped up the art of selling stuff online, Facebook owned social media and Googleowned search and the Android smartphone operating system, plus the consequent advertising diamond mines. Most importantly, these companies didn’t limit themselves to attracting specialised markets such as big business or government: they offered their highly desirable services and wares to everyday people everywhere.
But Schmidt had a warning. Not all four would survive. The next Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg (co-founder of Facebook) could be beavering away at a better idea right now. And there is deadly competition – before he died, Apple’s Steve Jobs promised to wage “thermonuclear war” on Google’s Android smartphone system for what he claimed was its theft of his iPhone operating system, and bitter tit-for-tat legal challenges between the two companies continue.
The constant requirement to innovate and change the nature of the game is pretty clearly the reason that early this year, very quietly, Larry Page renamed the core group of his company. What had always been named “search” became known, internally, as “the knowledge group”. “It will take about a decade to get to knowledge,” says Singhal. “Knowledge to me is how much you can know in the least possible time.”
He appears breezily unperturbed at the idea of it taking another decade – equal, perhaps, to a million lifetimes in the white-hot explosion of modern technological advancement.
Computers effectively thinking for themselves is a frontier capable of inspiring both excitement and fright: a vision from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its all-knowing and eventually murderous computer, HAL. But Singhal doesn’t see it like that. He is already dreaming far beyond the decade’s next big thing. Beyond knowledge, he confides, lies the Holy Grail: wisdom.
Wisdom, he merrily concedes, may be a mythical place, but in his mind it is where there are no more wars, no more hunger, no more poverty; where everyone has at hand the knowledge to eliminate such wickedness.
He takes seriously Google’s informal and clunky motto, “Don’t be evil”, and launches into a story about an African villager, plagued by ants destroying his potato crop, pedalling to a cyber cafe and learning from the internet that wood ash scattered on the crop was the answer to his problems. The villager then posted his findings on a wooden noticeboard so the entire district could benefit. Knowledge. The internet as community noticeboard in the service of humanity. Meanwhile, Singhal takes unaffected pleasure in yet another Googleinnovation.
He recalls his two great loves as a child growing up in the city of Jhansi in northern India. Cricket (“I think we’ll give you Australians a hard time this summer,” he twinkles) and watching Star Trek on TV. “Captain Kirk and Spock,” he says,”talking to the computer!”
It was, of course, a mere science-fiction fantasy to the child who, through education and superior intellect, would soon battle his way out of the old fort city on the high plains of Uttar Pradesh.
No longer. Singhal picks up his mobile phone (fitted with the latest Android system) and asks it, “What’s the height of the Eiffel Tower?”
“It is 1063 feet tall,” the phone informs him within a millisecond. He grins. His answer has come from “the cloud”, a million of Google’s powerful computers sitting in numerous secret data centres around the world, all working in concert to search the internet and to respond to any question he might toss into his little hand-held device. The device, in effect, is a supercomputer.
“Mobile combined with the cloud combined with voice – that’s the very near future,” he says.
Another of his colleagues, T. V. Raman, a Googleresearch guru in engineering devices that offer increasingly easy access to the benefits of the internet to the sightless, has reason to agree. Raman has been blind since he was a child, also growing up in India. His smartphone, equipped with a GPS device he calls a walkie-talkie, is at least as useful to him as his beloved labrador seeing-eye dog. He invites me to understand that his and my reasons for using a smartphone are not so different.
“Why do you use your phone or your computer?” he demands. “It’s not because of the pleasure of pushing those coloured buttons.” The point, he says, is to learn what you do not know, and if you happen to be blind, you have to solve problems before anyone else. He learnt Braille when he was 17 but, coming late to it, he wasn’t fast. He compensated by creating his own Braille shorthand, and found his way through the University of Pune, India, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and on to Cornell University in the US, earning a master’s in computer science and a PhD in applied mathematics.
“You can see, but you can’t see through that wall. But neither can I,” he chuckles. While I can study a screen, Raman’s phone talks to him and informs him – whether it be in Hamburg or New York – where he is and what is around him and what it looks like. It can see through walls.
Karim Temsamani has no argument about the coming flood of smartphone use, either. Four years ago, Temsamani was a magazine executive with Fairfax, publisher of Good Weekend, in Sydney. Now, having served as general manager for GoogleAustralia and New Zealand, he has moved to the Googleplex to become vice-president of Google Mobile, Google’s fastest-growing division.
“In the next couple of years, by 2015, there will be more people accessing the internet through mobile devices than by any other method,” he says, adding there are five billion mobile phones in the world, and the number of smartphones with access to the internet is growing exponentially.
Smartphones, he says, brought “an element of augmented humanity” to people’s lives. They held pictures of family. Users on the go checked into social media sites to see what their friends were doing and called up friends and family to talk virtually face to face on video chat. Google Maps made sure they were never lost and smartphones were turned into digital wallets, enabling purchases without cash or card. As for retailers’ fears that the internet would rob them of customers, “61 per cent of users who have researched a product on the internet end up calling a store or going into the store” and 44 per cent of them made a purchase, most of them in the store.
“I never go into a store without taking a picture of the product I am interested in and reviewing it on Googleto see if I can find it cheaper somewhere else,” says Temsamani.
The culture within which all these leaps of imagination are occurring is disarmingly blithe. Beyond the cafe’s picture windows where the boy in the hammock works on his computer, a boisterous group of Googlers bound around a beach volleyball court, belting a ball and whooping. Around the corner, a lone lifeguard sits beneath a Googleumbrella, overseeing the lap pool.
The gym is pumping. Scores of young bodies are on the running machines. They’re either working up an appetite or trying to slough off the extra half-dozen kilograms that tend to creep up on Nooglers.
It’s not hard to imagine why a sudden weight gain might accompany the pay cheque that comes with recruitment to the Googleplex. No one is ever more than 50 steps from a restaurant, cafe or micro-kitchen. And no one pays for anything.
The biggest restaurant is named Charlie’s, in honour of Google’s super-cool former executive chef, Charlie Ayers. Ayers was once the chef to the Grateful Dead, a San Francisco Bay Area acid-rock band that was formed in the 1960s, long before the vast majority of current Googlers were born, but at a time when the philosophy that drives them – expand your mind, anything is possible – was the catchcry. Googlers – thousands of them – stream into Charlie’s to feast on pretty well anything they might desire: Asian soups, fajitas, gourmet pizzas, seaweed salads, steaks, casseroles, sushi, burgers straight off the hot plate, cheesecake, fresh fruit, exotic ice-creams. And there are about 20 other cafes and kitchens dotted around the Googleplex. All free.
“What’s with all these eating places?” Good Weekend asks a succession of Googlers. The answer is always the same.
“Larry says that when a bunch of Googlers sit down together, amazing things can happen.”
It sounds glib, a sort of Californian geek-cult mantra. Yet it is incontrovertible that amazing things do happen at Google, a company whose influence on our daily lives has become so ubiquitous that it is less a corporation than a reflex action. “To google” is a verb with no current peer: somewhere between 70 per cent and 90 per cent (depending on whose research you believe) of all searches on the internet are now achieved through Google. Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo! Search carve up the remainder.
“Larry” is, of course, Larry Page. He and the Russian-born Sergey Brin famously founded Googlewhen they were computer science students at Stanford University. The university is just up the road at Palo Alto, and the little shed where the Googlestory began remains preserved, a sort of shrine to one of Silicon Valley’s most extraordinary success stories.
The university remains a major recruitment ground for Googlers, but Yolanda Mangolini, a very jolly African-American who rejoices in the title of director of “global diversity and inclusion”, points out that Google “reaches out” to high school students from their early teens, persuading and helping them to choose computer science.
The best and brightest are, in short, identified early and watched as potential Nooglers. Diversity is encouraged, and Mangolini takes pride in overseeing 19 “diversity groups” – Gayglers, Jewglers, even Greyglers for older Googlers.
Page and Brin are both aged 38, but Google itself is a mere teenager. It celebrated its 13th birthday on September 27. While almost every serious company in the world would rather slit its own wrists than play around with its brand, Google celebrated, as teenagers tend to do, in frivolous fashion. It designed a birthday Doodle, dressed up its famous blue, yellow, red and green logo with party hats, added an exclamation mark and sat the brand name behind a table heaped with wrapped gifts and a white birthday cake with 13 candles.
Google has been having fun with its brand for years. One of its most famous Doodles is the name refashioned as a guitar to celebrate the 96th birthday of the great musician Les Paul. Anyone can find it (and play it) on YouTube, Google’s on-line video arm, bought in 2006 from an unprofitable start-up company for $US1.65 billion.
Critics questioned YouTube’s staying power at the time of the purchase, citing all sorts of copyright concerns. Today, almost one hour of video is loaded onto YouTube every second, reportedly attracting more than $1 billion in revenue this year from advertisers delirious at the thought of all those eyes looking at all those moving pictures. It’s the No. 1 video site in the world. No. 2 is Google’s YouTube for mobile devices. So much for frivolity.
Yet there are no working hours or even, apparently, designated working places at the Googleplex (the labs – including Google X, the hub of such out-there ideas as driverless cars and the space elevator – are where the serious and mostly secret work is done and are off limits to visitors).
Google’s computer engineers – and this is, above all, an engineering outfit – are granted 20 per cent of their time, or a day a week, to work on their own pet projects. The best-known result of this generous arrangement is Gmail, an email service that offered users, in the mid-noughties, a stupendous gigabyte of storage, hundreds of times what was then available from competitors like Hotmail (and which is vastly more now).
Launch date was April 1, 2004, leading commentators to suspect an April Fools’ joke, something of an art among Google’s young pranksters. The engineers were so self-satisfied they chose not to include a delete button, arguing that emails were a user’s own property, so why should they want to delete them? The argument didn’t stack up with those who couldn’t imagine why they’d keep messages forever, and such a button was later introduced. Google got a nice return -hundreds of millions of dollars, year on year, from carefully targeted advertising every time a Gmailer sends or receives an email.
Hardly surprisingly, with all those perks – the free meals, free laundry and dry-cleaning, subsidised massages and childcare, a fleet of buses to ferry employees to and from their homes in San Francisco and beyond – Google has been ranked for much of the new century among the top employers in the US. This year, CNN Money placed it at No. 1 and Fortune magazine had it at No. 4. Salaries, while solid, aren’t excessive in the tech world, ranging from about $90,000 to $200,000 a year. Page and Brin, both multi-billionaires thanks to their stock holdings in Google, pay themselves exactly $1 a year each.
The message? Job satisfaction is worth more than salary. It seems to work, although nobody calls the Googleplex a workplace. It’s a campus. In this temple to bright youth, it fits.
If you were to imagine, however, that this was no more than a playschool for spoiled geeks with PhDs, you’d be wrong. Signs scattered around remind everyone that they are involved in a serious enterprise. “Standards,” proclaims one such poster, a touch self-consciously. “Great just isn’t good enough.”
Former Melburnian Glen Murphy makes clear what that means. Murphy, 30 – “I’m older now than my first boss” – is on the team that designs and constantly improves Google’s browser, Chrome. It’s all about speed, stability and security, and he’s convinced the browser is better than the competition, but he and his colleagues are constantly having their work put to the test “by people trying to find any weaknesses, wherever they can”.
“Fortunately, they’re mainly on our side – we have some really amazing security people testing us all the time,” he says. In other words, pressure on results is a part of the job description. It is simply that Google allows its employees the freedom to meet their targets in their own way.
“There are some pretty eccentric people here – some like to shut themselves in a room for a week and solve whatever it is they are trying to do, others like to sit around, talk and socialise, but they’re working. So long as you do what you say you’re going to do, no one cares how you do it.”
As we talk, two young Googlers slide, giggling, down a stainless-steel slippery dip into the interview room. Murphy hardly notices. Just a couple of colleagues letting off steam.
Google has turned just about everything on its head, and not just by installing slippery dips and playground equipment. Its product – information – is supplied free to anyone with a computer, a tablet or a smartphone. When it created its Android operating system for smartphones, Google simply gave away the system, free, to any phone manufacturer that wanted to use it. Yet the company makes billions of dollars. About $30 billion this year, in fact.
“We had a great quarter,” enthused Page, Google’s CEO, announcing the company’s latest financial results last month. Characteristically, he used Google’s latest whiz-bang creation, Google+, to carry his announcement. Google+ is Page’s challenge to Facebook’s stranglehold on the digital social world, although it remains unclear how successful it might be. It was made available to the general public in September, and according to Page, it had 40 million users by the middle of last month. Facebook has 800 million active users.
Page’s declaration of a “great quarter” was an understatement. Revenue for the three months to September rose 33 per cent over the same period the previous year to $US9.72 billion. Profit was up 26 per cent to $US2.73 billion. And during those three months, the company added 2585 employees, bringing its total workforce to 31,353.
At a time when much of the world was in recession, still recovering from one global financial crisis and worrying about another, it was the fourth straight quarter in which Google’s revenue growth had been at least 20 per cent.
Information, in short, turns into gold in Google’s hands. Yet Google doesn’t sell any of the stupendous amounts of information it gathers about its users -which is to say, you and me.
Legislators, privacy activists and those sceptical about Google’s silver-tongued “Don’t be evil” mantra, however, can hardly avoid worrying about a single corporation storing more information about its billions of users than any dictator in history could even imagine.
To undertake the tasks that google insists improve our lives – a billion instant searches a day, the ability to find your way almost anywhere by Google Maps, the magic of pointing your camera at a building or monument or street corner and learning anything you might want to know about it, the use of ever-smarter hand-held devices into which you can speak a question in any language or even dialect and get an instant answer (or, for that matter, order a meal in Paris in English and have it instantly translated into French for the waiter), and the luxury of storing every last piece of your information in a cyberspace “cloud”, knowing your computer could be stolen or destroyed and you still wouldn’t lose its memory – requires its computers to learn immense amounts about those doing the asking.
Thinking about a trip to Bali? If you’ve mentioned it on Gmail, Google knows and has already bombarded your screen with advertisements about where to stay and what to do. Precisely where were you last Thursday at midday? If you are one of the many millions with an Android phone, Google knows because it tracks your phone’s movements. Daniel Soar, of the London Review of Books, took the trouble to check Google’s tracking of his own phone’s movements, and discovered that “on April 30, 2011, at 4.33pm I was at Willesden Junction station, travelling west”. Favourite shops, style of clothing, restaurants, genre of books? Google’s got it covered, and learns more and becomes smarter every time you ask it a question, check out a YouTube video, pull up a map or log into Google+.
When he was CEO, Schmidt hardly calmed public concerns about privacy when he declared: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time and it’s important to remember, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.”
Schmidt himself discovered that privacy is a double-edged sword. In 2005, a reporter from tech website CNET News used Google’s own search tools to learn all sorts of things about Schmidt, including his home address, his route to work, his political ties and his wealth. Schmidt was unamused and Googlewithdrew any contact with CNET’s reporters for two months, declaring its use of private information was inappropriate.
A big screen at the Googleplex grants perspective on the magnitude of the traffic in information. A globe of the world revolves through its days and nights. Streams of millions of microdots, each representing a search question, cascade into the ether, dying off as late night envelops each country, spurting anew as dawn arrives. For every search request, Googlelearns a bit more about the questioner. Only the African continent, or most of it, remains dark most of the time, waiting for the internet to pierce its vast poverty. Google doesn’t know much about Africans. Yet.
That doesn’t mean, however, that armies of actual Googlers are checking you out, or are even particularly interested in your name. Jonathan McPhie, privacy lead for Google+, spends half an hour persuading Good Weekend that Google’s social network has set new and high privacy standards that place control of what can and can’t be seen on sites in the hands of users, and provides the tools to opt in or out of various levels of transparency or even remove posts once they are made. He won’t say it, but Google is trying to trump Facebook, which is accused of all sorts of privacy violations.
Only a handful of the most senior and trusted executives, the corporation insists, can get at your data, and they’re limited to doing so only when there is a specific request by the user. Your shirt-buying habits and your holiday destinations are locked away in Google’s vast data centres where there is almost no human intervention, building patterns of broad behaviour designed to inform and inflame the interest of advertisers.
That’s where the treasure lies. Almost all of Google’s revenue – more than 95 per cent of it – comes from advertisers desperate to pay serious money to display their wares on screens whenever and wherever someone asks Google to search for information. As Google evolves – its blue-jeaned Googlers trying to keep ahead of the future, finding ways to teach computers to harness knowledge while keeping an eye over their shoulders for anyone with a smarter idea – the corporation insists it doesn’t need to trade in your personal data. The knowledge is all it needs, and it gets more of it all the time.