I offer another book review:
A very useful book on recent technological history, In the Plex (2011; Amazon) takes us through the history of Google. The subject is obviously important to anyone seeking to understand cyberspace and the digital world.
It’s a very engaging book as well, balancing neatly between technical details and human lives. It renders computer science problems accessible to the nonspecialist. And Levy sometimes pulls out entertaining, or at least humanizing, elements:
“I hate ads,” says Eric Veach, the Google engineer who created the most successful ad system in history. (83)
These characters and technologies appear within the unusual Google culture, which Levy probes throughout the book. We see the famous playfulness and company-supplied pleasures, along with stresses and war rooms.
Levy organizes the book into large chapters, each of which addresses several years of Google (which are akin to decades elsewhere). For example, one covers the development of the very lucrative ad services, while another follows the messy China involvement. Each chapter takes the company further along in wealth, global reach, and digital development. We watch as the little company offering a single service – search – spreads into a sprawling empire: Google Earth, Google Maps, Web office (Google Docs, etc), the Android phone operating system plus the occasional phone plus telephony service, book scanning, self-driving cars, Google+. We see projects appear and flop: Buzz, Lively, Wave, OpenSocial.
The ultimate part of that arc is worried rather than triumphant, as Levy ends on a questioning note. There’s no sense that the impending (as of the book’s publication) launch of G+ will help organize the overflowing number of services. Larry Page takes the reins, but problematically, not as the logical heir apparent, still too much Prince Hal.
At first read Levy treats Google with balance, rather than awe. The company’s technical achievements appear in an admiring light, but the public antics of Brin and Page look simply embarrassing. The major IPO looks foolish, showing Wall Street to have easily corralled the Google upstars. In the Plex depicts Google’s putative attempt to, famously, not be evil in a way which would please neither Google celebrant not its detractors.
Some topics were missing or underemphasized. There’s no discussion at all of the late, lamented Google RSS Reader. Lively appears only in a single sentence (and there to be killed), without mention of the contemporary virtual worlds brouhaha. Web associations don’t appear (HTML 5 shows up once, 212). The Apple versus Google battle does appear, but in a minimal fashion. We don’t see, for instance, discussion of conflicting models of the internet, Web vs app.
Otherwise, this is an important and exciting book. It is already dated, of course, and will continue to recede into the past. But what Levy describes is what makes the world-striding Google colossus, and his work helps us understand it.