Visiting Google: the digital city-state

Reflections on attending the SciFoo Camp at Google, first published on First Drafts, August 2010

Even though I’ve visited its offices in London before, I never really thought of Google as something that takes up physical space in the way that a bank or a retail chain does. 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA—the Googleplex—has changed all that, thanks to the weekend I’ve just spent there for the SciFoo Camp, an extravaganza for a glittering array of scientific writers and thinkers organized by Tim O’Reilly, and graciously hosted by the world’s most famous technology company. Looking at my browser window now, the Google search bar lodged at the top right, I have a new kind of double vision: a place, faces and voices overlaid on the bare text.

I spoke to Larry Page only briefly at Google, but his public words at the start of the Camp neatly summed up the tone of the proceedings: “Ask: is what I’m doing going to change the world? If the answer is no, then maybe you should do something else.” In the context of his own $150bn company, this managed to sound more like practical advice than hubris, and the gathered wattage of intellectuals applauded loudly. Then we were on to the serious business of discussion: free-form sessions, proposed on the spot and plastered onto a vast post-it timetable, spanning topics brain-achingly diverse and dazzling—from super-symmetry to earthquake prediction, from the archaeology of Greek clockwork to the origins of the universe, from human flight without aircraft to the practicalities of building a working brain within a super-computer.

What will live with me as much as any individual session, though, is the place itself. Google’s home is a campus, and being there is a “total” experience: if you work there, you can enjoy a gymnasium, sunny courtyards, beach volleyball, endless tech toys, laundry facilities and three excellent meals a day on site. As one employee explained it, workers are treated “like adults”—trusted to work and play hard, pursuing their projects in their own time. In another sense, of course, this also means they are treated like schoolchildren, or at least like members of a politely paternal institution—liberated from mundane concerns the better to learn and perform.

In the endless bright space of the outer San Francisco bay, between distant mountains and gridded freeways, it makes a Platonic kind of sense. The Nasa Ames research centre is next door to Google, its vast runways and hangers straight out of a science fiction movie; some of my happiest conversations were with its newest generation of thinkers. These are spaces in which people are free to live their ideas.

As I found myself discussing with the philosopher, podcaster and Prospect columnist Nigel Warburton, there’s more than hint of the Renaissance city state to both Google and its great Californian colleague, Apple. Each is a place of extraordinary cultural fertility, complete with its own aesthetic and attitude: the relentlessly minimal modernism of Apple, where users’ needs and whims are pre-empted with a commitment to elegance that borders on the pathological; the technicolor postmodernism of Google, whose software tools are ceaselessly calibrated to make anything that anyone might ever wish to know discoverable, and anything they might wish to do with data conceivable.

Digital culture may feel ubiquitous and instantaneous, but its greatest tools come from somewhere particular. The most brilliant minds of a generation flock to enter these citadels—to work, to visit, to build new futures for export. Whatever changes the world next, don’t bet against it coming from a place that looks a lot like these.