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In The Plex
How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
Steven Levy
read on April 1, 2013

I have had this book on my list for a long time. I first heard about it a year or so ago, when it was released, and it was pretty well acclaimed. I've long wanted to know a bit more about Google, and I think the only reason it took so long for this to finally make the cut is because the cover is so horrible. Sometimes books get different covers when they're released in different markets, and I actually searched for for an alternate to use because this one is so bad. Ug.

Anyway, I'm glad I did make it through. The whole thing was well written and engaging. It truly does seem like a unique company, being run by very unique founders. Highlights:

  • Google had a very bespoke IPO - I didn't even know you could really do that. Their S-1 was hilarious, where they made all kinds of unusual statements (like the famous 'don't be evil' motto - that's an odd thing to tell your investors) and especially a sentence declaring that they may do some things that lose money, only because they believe that doing them will make the world a better place. They also ran the IPO as a dutch auction, a process they felt would be the most fair to retail investors. They outright declared that they will always only disclose the minimum information required by law to their investors... ! Hilarious right? Maybe best of all, they setup the company with two classes of shares. Class A is common equity where 1 share = 1 vote. Class B shares have 10x voting power, and are convertible to Class A at any time. Larry and Sergey loaded themselves up on Class B, giving them perpetual control of the company - years later Zuckerberg did the same thing.
  • Larry and Sergey are BIG into brain science. I had no idea. Their vision of Google is implanting a chip in your brain, so that you'll just 'know' things. I'm 100% on-board with this; but Google is probably the creepiest, worst company I'd want actually doing it. Still - this is a long, long way off, but I'm happy that there is serious private research being done on it - very interesting.
  • Larry and Sergey were both brought up in Montessori schools. I had no idea what those were, but apparently they're an institution that emphasizes learning through experimentation and individual effort, never by rote. I'm totally down with this, and was glad to learn about it. On the one hand it would produce people like these guys, who are insatiably curious and never even consider backing off of an exciting idea just because it's unconventional or because it's off the beaten path. We need people like that. But on the flip side, I could see the same kind of upbringing lead to creating someone like Kanye West - an outrageously egomaniacal, self-entitled asshole who does whatever the hell they want, with total disregard for authority, order, and conventional manners. I guess it's a pretty thin line between the two.

Unfortunately, the book didn't answer the one resounding question I've always had about Google: "Seriously, how do they make money? Like, for real?" Look, I've seen the income statement, I understand it's all advertising. The part I don't understand is how horrible those ads are. In the last ten years I'd be blown away if I ever clicked on more than 3 of them, and 2 of those were probably on accident. Google ads (adsense/adwords - not referring to doubleclick display ads) are HORRIBLE. Really, really bad. And Youtube? The little ads that stick up during videos get closed immediately 100% of the time. ALWAYS. Gmail ads? I've never clicked them. Ever. Not once, not even by accident. Google is horrible at advertising. Again, I'm saying this as someone with taste looking at their actual ads, not looking at their balance sheet. And I just don't understand. I really don't know where the money is coming from. Either the music is just going to stop for them one of these days when advertisers realized that Google isn't doing shit for them, or I just really don't get it.

Author Bio:

Levy is the editor-in-chief of the tech hub for Medium. Previously he was senior writer for Wired, following a dozen years as chief technology writer and a senior editor for Newsweek. Levy has had articles published in Harper's, Macworld, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Premiere, and Rolling Stone. He is regarded as a prominent and respected critic of Apple Inc. In July 2004, Levy wrote a cover story (which also featured an interview with Apple CEO Steve Jobs) which unveiled the 4th generation of the iPod to the world before Apple had officially done so, an unusual event since Apple is well known for its tight-lipped press policy. In 1984, he wrote a book called Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, in which he described a "hacker ethic", which became a guideline to understanding how computers have advanced into the machines that we know and use today. He identified this Hacker Ethic to consist of key points such as that all information is free, and that this information should be used to "change life for the better". Levy won the "Computer Press Association Award" for a report he co-wrote in 1998 on the Year 2000 problem. Levy was a contributor to Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Software Catalog, first published in 1984. In 1978, Steven Levy rediscovered Albert Einstein's brain in the office of the pathologist who removed and preserved it. Levy received his bachelor's degree from Temple University and earned a Master's degree in literature from Pennsylvania State University. He lives in New York City with his wife, Pulitzer Prize winner Teresa Carpenter, and son.