In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

In the Plex by Steven LevyI challenge you to think of a day sometime in the last five years or so that Google did not affect some aspect of your life. Maybe you did a Google Search for Black Friday deals or double checked the best way to brine a turkey before roasting. But let’s exempt any Google searches from my challenge. Google is, after all, a search company, right? That certainly was the case at the company’s inception in 1998, but I’m willing to bet that Google has made a major impact on your life within the last 24 hours and in a way that we take wholly for granted now in 2014. I’ve checked my secure and safely stored Gmail, was reminded of an event on my calendar (and am confident that I will continue to receive them), used Maps to find directions to a local business and am even typing this into Google Docs, a free alternative to Microsoft Office. Google was a David, the underdog of the internet that has slowly lumbered into the role of Goliath. It is an oft misunderstood target of fear and favor, both a champion of the common man and a black box that leaves us feeling a little creeped out. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy is a rare glimpse into the beginning, culture and process of one of the most powerful, influential and provocative companies the world has ever know. Google has been a target of public mistrust, has enabled me and a friend of mine to start a business, and has empowered me to explore my new hometown of Memphis. It’s easy to imagine a world with a Google more or less sinister or benign; but it’s impossible to imagine the world without Google at all.

Google is like a kudzu plant with dense tendrils and a vast, intricate root system that makes it hard to pinpoint what it is it actually does. Is Google a search company? A navigation company? A business software company? A social media site and an online photo manager? The truth is, Google is an advertising company; all of the data you feed the voracious “Goog” goes into an algorithm that makes up an advertising profile for you. For example, you email your significant other about where to buy a turkey, do a quick search for a cranberry sauce recipe and fire up Google Maps. Google may very well provide you with driving directions to the grocery store using Google Now, its preemptive search service that attempts to predict what you’ll need before you look for it. Google takes all this information in aggregate (meaning they lump similar profiles together, like if you’re into camping and fly fishing) and sell that anonymized data to other marketers and advertisers who in turn use that market segment to advertise their products in Google. In this context, Google sounds like a boring, invasive and otherwise uninteresting company–if it weren’t for its engineers who use the seemingly endless profits to make and manufacture some pretty amazing products, all for free (though all designed to vacuum up even more information about you).

Google was a bothersome presence in my online life after a young man named Edward Snowden released his NSA findings to the public. It was hard to ignore the fact that nothing I did through Google, its services or even online was private, from the big Goog or from Big Brother. I wish that In the Plex covered the post-Snowden era but unfortunately it scope ends in 2011, the year it was published. However, I do like to think of my online identity as a dichotomy of privacy vs. security. In that end, it’s hard to argue how private my profile and contents (Gmail, Google Drive, location information) are, whether it’s Google’s computers scanning for keywords or an NSA agent enthralled with my latest draft for Friends of Atticus. If there is anything of value that I want to store on Google Drive like my tax documents from the last couple years, I always encrypt them; I wrote a quick and dirty how to for zuriapps.com on encrypting documents and files on a Mac before uploading them to Google Drive. That said, I do trust Google explicitly when it comes to security. I don’t believe there is any other company that safeguards and innovates when it comes to protecting its users’ accounts more than Google. In the Plex was a fascinating look at engineers with great ideas confronted with privacy issues; it’s a common theme throughout Google’s history. They are a data-driven, future-facing group of highly intelligent people. But the human element often escapes them when trying to push out new, cool and useful products. But from reading this book, as well as my own anecdotal evidence, Google has proven itself to be at the mercy of its public perception: they are only as successful as their users perceive them to be trustworthy. And they are an absolute success.

A couple months ago, I decided to abandon my external hard drives and to live “in the cloud” using internet-based storage to host my files, documents and data. Here’s a little something I wrote up for zuriapps.com.

There are many reasons to store your data in Google Drive, which offers a secure, always-on solution to data storage. A few months ago, I ditched my 2TB hard drive in favor of moving to the cloud. It was the best decision I have made in a long time. I love the fact that I no longer have to babysit my hard drives, run maintenance on them, have whatever I stored on them available on the local network only and that if anything were to happen, be it a security or hardware failure issue, professional engineers would fix whatever the problem was without me even knowing about it. And all at a fraction of the price of replacing a large capacity hard drive every three years or so? I’m in.

I wish I could say that it was a difficult decision to make but it wasn’t. I pay $2 a month to not have to think about maintenance, security and hardware failure, it’s  searchable, available wherever there is an internet connection and pervasive across platforms and devices. Now, whenever I turn on my laptop, I fire up Google Chrome and everything I do is in the web browser. I hardly ever use other applications on my computer and I no longer need to worry about persistent backups (though Google makes it easy to backup your account including email, calendar, contacts, Drive, YouTube, etc. with its easy-to-use tool Google Takeout). The heartbeat of In the Plex is its ability to step back every so often and admire the fact that someone out there has developed a slew of free-to-use tools that really do improve our lives immeasurably.

A buddy of mine called me about a year ago and asked if I wanted to help him start a business. He had some grant money but the incredible thing was that all of the communications infrastructure that we needed was already available for free from Google. And so after many emails and many documents, Zuri Apps was born.

Zuri is a social venture dedicated to funding app development for charities, building apps and publishing quality reviews, how to’s and featured articles (we are always looking for writers). But this kind of business move would have cost us thousands in infrastructure. Without Google’s services, we would never have been able to afford launching Zuri and without Google’s search traffic, nobody would ever find us! Google has made our dreams possible, for free, in exchange for our aggregated, anonymized data. That’s incredible.

Google has had and continues to have such a profound affect on my personal and professional life that I wanted to learn more about them, about their culture and motives. I didn’t want to get caught up in the zeitgeist of technopanic or hating on a corporation just because they’re big. I wanted to know how they made their money, how they draw the line in the sand between privacy and security and how a small, scrappy startup has become the David-turned-Goliath of the last 15 years or so.

In the Plex is a well-paced, fun and easy to understand narrative of Google’s history as a company and how it fits into not only my life but so many others as well. Levy has a great writing style that never comes off as boring or dull and he takes rather complicated concepts like micro ad auctions and makes them accessible for the layman. It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone that isn’t already heavily invested in Google’s services or has a piqued interest in the history of the company. But the real value in reading this book to me was in educating myself, seeing how Google weighed my privacy and security, and not getting caught up in the paranoia; if you’re searching for the signal in the noise, check out In the Plex and share your thoughts with us in the comments section.

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