The world is getting better, In the Plex edition

From Steven Levy’s In the Plex; How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives, an astonishingly good and detailed book that, as of page 146, doesn’t feel padded:

[. . .] the founders themselves embraced ‘Don’t be evil’ as a summation of their own hopes for the company. That was what Google was about: two young men who wanted to do good, gravitated to a new phenomenon (the Internet) that promised to be a history-making force for good, developed a solution that would gather the world’s information, level the Tower of Babel, and link millions of processors into a global prosthesis for knowledge. And if the technology they created would make the world a better place, so would their company; Google would be a shining beacon for the way corporations should operate: an employee-centric, data-driven leadership pampering a stunningly bright workforce that, for its own part, lavished all its wit and wizardry on empowering users and enriching advertising customers. From those practices, the profits would roll in. Ill intentions, flimflammery, and greed had no role in the process. If temptation sounded its siren call, one could remain on the straight path by invoking Amit Patel’s florid calligraphy on the whiteboards of the Googleplex: ‘Don’t be evil.’ Page and Brin were good, and so must be the entity they founded.

Ambition linked to knowledge of how to execute is evident throughout the book, but especially here, given that the company’s major players aren’t just content with being big—they want to be big and be good, with a presumably evolving definition of what “good” means. This is a bit like the United States itself, which isn’t collectively content to merely be—there’s a very long cultural strain of being an icon or role model. Such a desire often leads the country to unfortunate lurches that mostly seem to be corrected as time goes on.

Reading the news on a day-to-day basis often gives one a sense of doom and disaster. Reading a book like In the Plex reminds one that the world is going places even if politicians and the politics they make don’t realize it. The world is big and strange, and it’s getting more so over time—if one takes the time to realize it. Google may or may not “be a shining beacon,” but its goals are hard not to admire, even if they’re cloaked i religious language (“the straight path”). I use Google most days without thinking about all the thought behind the company, which is busy making the world a different place very fast.

It helps that Levy is telling the story; much like Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything, he manages to compress a great deal of information and personality into a small space. He imparts some of the sense of magic Google itself is supposed to inculcate—notice the reference to “wit and wizardry”—and some of the sense of optimism that we can do things if we really want to.

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