Friday, January 1, 2010

Identity on Planet Google

Yesterday I finally got around to watching Ken Auletta's talk about his Googled book, which I had saved on my VTR from its Book TV broadcast. I had read several reviews of the book, and I have been familiar with Auletta's style of both reporting and writing ever since I read his profile of Jean Riboud, former president of Schlumberger, for The New Yorker. Having also heard Auletta interviewed on both radio and television, I had a fair idea of what to expect from his talk; but what I did not expect was that the talk would be recorded in the Googleplex itself. I knew that Auletta had tried to write a book that would examine the assets and liabilities of both the idea of Google and its corporate realization in equal measure, so I was struck to see him invited into the belly of the beast to deliver his results.

Actually, Auletta did not give his presentation in the same large Auditorium in which each of the 2008 presidential candidates had been given a "Google Interview." So the belly may be the wrong metaphor. He seemed to be in a moderately large conference room, the sort of place where key ideas might find themselves "digested" by a "critical mass" of key Google staff; the small intestine might be the better metaphor!

Auletta began his talk by saying that he had just given the same presentation at Microsoft. This allowed him to launch into his first key finding, which was the difference between "Planet Google" and "Planet Microsoft." He observed that on Planet Microsoft all managerial decisions are made by skilled and calculating businessmen, while on Planet Google those decisions are made by top-flight engineers. In other words the destiny of "corporate Google" is determined by the same mentality that gave birth to the business in the first place.

This allowed him to then riff on why this is both a good and a bad thing. I suspect that anything he said about the former was just preaching to the choir. The latter was the more important cautionary tale. In many respects it was a variation on the old adage that, to a small boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail: All major decisions at Google are made under the assumption that they can be framed and analyzed as engineering problems. At the risk of sounding too reductive, the message that Auletta had developed in his book and wanted his Google audience to take away from his talk was that the real world is not an engineering problem.

He delivered this message with some of the best rhetorical skills I have seen in a public speaker. However, if the good news was preaching to the choir, the bad news was preaching to the deaf. I say this on the basis of the sorts of questions he fielded after giving his talk. It was not that the questions fumbled around in technobabble; they were all posed quite clearly. However, unless I am mistaken, every question I heard was framed as if it were an engineering problem, cast strictly in objective terms in search of the appropriate methods that would lead to a suitable solution. In other words the cultural context in which top-level decision-making was grounded was the same culture that one found in employees at all levels, meaning that Auletta's plea for cultivating more refined perceptions of the real world was totally ignored.

Much of Auletta's talk dwelled on the consequences that arise when engineering thinking "bumps into" (his wording) the real world. For some time I have observed that Google has built up quite a track record of these "bumps;" but Auletta's point was that the bumps are likely to get more and more severe as Google expands its influence in more and more directions. What he may not have realized is that, however persuasive his logic and rhetoric may have been, he was dealing with an audience with a worldview the simply could not accommodate that point.

Again, let me run the risk of being too reductive. As a product of MIT myself, I know all about the caricature of the engineering student who views any course in the humanities as a necessary evil, one of those hoops through which (s)he has to jump in order to be awarded a degree. One seeks out courses that will take one through those hoops with a minimum of pain and exertion, leaving one free to work on the things that "really matter." Whether or not he realized it, Auletta's audience saw him as one of those humanities professors; and I suspect that most of them felt that they had paid these particular dues a long time ago. The problem that Auletta could not deal with was the challenge of getting an audience of engineers to appreciate the limitations of engineering thinking.

There is, of course, a paradox behind this challenge. Paying too much attention to the limitations of engineering thinking could distract from the practice of being a first-rate engineer. Douglas Adams was able to turn this paradox into slapstick humor in his Hitchhiker's Guide novels; but, as is often the case in literature, it was humor that revealed a far more serious problem. If Planet Google were to expand its population to include a new "non-engineering" social class, would it still be Planet Google? Would it still be a successful Planet Google? Trying to answer these questions is a matter of reasoning about consequences, but it involves a level of reasoning beyond the limits of engineering. Thus, however, important it may be for Google to consider such questions, dealing with them effectively may remain beyond the scope of the prevailing mindset.

No comments: