ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Google, the company whose name has become synonymous with search, was founded in a garage in 1998. In the new book, "Googled," a New Yorker staff writer, Ken Auletta, traces the company's rise.
Troy Patterson has this review.
TROY PATTERSON: In more than three decades on the media beat, Ken Auletta has distinguished himself as a crack reporter. In his new book, "Googled," the New Yorker writer sketches Google co-founder Sergey Brin as gregarious and rather flashy, a man who keeps a spacesuit in his office. The other co-founder, Larry Page, is more reserved. He's the kind of billionaire who, at parties, skips schmoozing with fellow moguls in favor of standing at the sidelines snapping photos.
Each of these denim-clad prodigies is now 36, two decades younger than the third member of their triumvirate, Eric Schmidt. The rare corporate senior manager with a Ph.D. in computer science, Schmidt provides the founders with adult supervision.
Their shared project is utopian, their ethos egalitarian, their way of doing business, idiosyncratic. One scene in "Googled" finds Brin giving a playfully fiendish assignment to a lawyer interviewing to be his corporate counsel. I need you to draw me a contract, he said. I need the contract to be for me to sell my soul to the devil. This is not to suggest any satanic intent on the company's part, but it may seem contradictory, given the slogan that provides Google with its moral compass: Don't be evil.
Auletta's central premise is that Googles numerous leaps forward, like its occasional missteps, flow from its character as a business founded by engineers as opposed to businessmen. On the one hand, the company favors clinical efficiency and spurns conventional wisdom. On the other, its practices can sometimes seem arrogant and even tone deaf.
Consider that the beta release of its Web mail service did not include a delete button - the reasoning that Gmail offered plentiful storage and also holding the paternalistic idea that deciding whether to delete a message was a waste of the user's time, the company presented itself as a squad of Mr. Spocks, logical to a fault. As Auletta puts it: Google relied so much on science, on data and mathematical algorithms, that it was insensitive to legitimate privacy fears.
The engineers remain in charge, Auletta writes early on. On the next page, he quotes a former executive declaring Google an engineering-driven and focused culture. On the page after that, we hear an employee say: When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems.
We get it already. Among the frustrations of the book "Googled" is that its premise is also its conclusion and its constant drumbeat. This is hardly the only point repeated ad nauseam. The book is rife with facts familiar not only from the books and articles Auletta cites, but at this point, from the canon of chattering-class, cocktail-party knowledge. Have you really gleaned any new information from this review? If so, the book may well be a pleasure. If not, it will certainly be a slog.
Given the essence of a shapely narrative or a strong point of view, "Googled" reads as a timeline skimming across important moments in the company's history and providing rote miniature profiles of the key players. Auletta's latest suffices as a reference book, but few of its points couldn't be discovered in a fraction of a second by a simple Google search.
SIEGEL: Troy Patterson writes about books and television for slate.com. Ken Auletta's book, "Googled," is one of the five staff picks on NPR's What We Are Reading list. That's a new feature that we've launched today on our Web site, and you can check it out at npr.org.
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