Google, Politics, And The President Of The United States

In Steven Levy's new book 'Inside The Plex', we get a rare first-hand view of Google's flirtation, and eventual disillusionment, with politics as a means to foster social change.

To begin with—Levy explores the social and political roots of the two founders plexSergi Brin and Larry Page. Both of them come from an intellectual upbringing and were raised with sense of obligation to create an impact on society. And while technologists often think of politics as the antithesis of reasoned, logic based, objective reasoning—reading The Plex you can see how the Googlers, at least for a time, thought that an Obama Presidency might be in sync with their own view of how knowledge and a connected world could replace local or regional fiefdoms with a data driven, solution oriented world.

As just one example of the warm relationship between the Presidential Candidate and the Googlers—Levy tells of a Q&A moment when Obama is asked a question that one would expect to be presented during a Google employment interview. "What is the most effective way to sort a million 32-bit integers?" the audience member asked. Obama, after pondering for a moment responded "Well, I think a bubble sort would be the wrong way to go." The crowd erupted in laughter. Later, Eric Schmidt acknowledged the candidate has been briefed on the question—but the point was made. Obama was one of them.

A perfect example is how candidate Obama described his approach to health care. "He would invite everybody to sit a the table, including special interests ("they'll get to sit at the table, they just won't get to buy every seat"). It would all be done publicly shown on c-SPAN, and streamed over the net", reports Levy. "If those special interests engage in fear mongering and misinformation, the Obama counterpunch would be data." Well—we all know how that turned out.

While Google didn't officially support a candidate in 2008—Levy reports that there was the feeling that he "thought like a Googler.'

And while Google's candidate did win the White House, Levy recounts the experiences a list of Googlers who went to Washington, and left disillusioned with the system, and their ability to make change from within. Among them David Siroker—a product manager who was working on the sexy 'Chrome' project when Obama spoke at Google. "He had me at bubble sort" Levy reports him saying. Siroker took time off to go to Chicago and work on the campaign. There he used Google's Website Optimizer to text a variety of offers and phrases on the campaign's web site. He reported that 'swag' a t-shirt or a Obama mug generated the best results for new donors. But he didn't join the administration, turning down what Levy describes as the "newly imagined post of director of citizen participation." Instead, he suggested Katie Stanton, who'd been the head of the Google Elections Team. Stanton was one of a number of Googlers who went to Washington, thinking this new rational White House would replace partisan politics with hard, cold data. Alas it was not to be.

Says Levy; "They went straight into a buzz saw of illogic, bad intentions, mistrust, and, worst of all, obsolete gadgets." No Facebook, no Skype, no Google Talk, no Gmail, no Twitter, no Linked-In.

In perhaps the incident that best reflects the conflict between Google's data driven world view, and Washington's image conscious turf warfare—Stanton led a 'ask the President' public session—powered by software called Google Moderator. Moderator was the software used by Google for its weekly Q&A sessions between Googlers and Larry and Sergi—and the public version worked very much the same way with individuals posing questions and then the public voting them up or down (much like Digg) so that the voice of the crowd would drive which questions were most popular. March 26th 2009—the President found himself with a list of questions—the top ones all about the legalization of Marijuana. A lobbying group—NOMAL—had mobilized its members to push the pot legalization issue to the top of the charts. Stanton moved to the State Department after that—either by choice, or not—Levy doesn't characterize the move.

Said Stanton of her experience: "Working in Government is like running a marathon, blindfolded, wearing sandbags. I feel like I'm a vegetarian working inside a sausage factory." Today Stanton works at Twitter.

Even as Googlers were becoming disillusioned with Washington, Google was coming to terms with the fact that it would have to embrace it—or allow its competitors to have free run of the political process. Even so, as Google built a large lobbying effort in DC, those who joined thought of themselves as playing a different game. Said one lobbyist who joined after serving as Chief Counsel to John McCain, "It's a kind of an extension of public service, it's really advocating in favor of the Internet, in favor of openness, and democratization of information."

But Levy makes it clear that, despite the hope that "Google and the administration vibrate at the same frequency", Google's future would likely be one of conflict with Government regulators rather than one of synergy.

Christine Varney—named in Feb of '09 as the head of DOJ's anti-trust division—said that Google "is quickly gathering market power for what I could call an online computing environment in the clouds. When all of our enterprises move to computing in the clouds, there is a single firm that is offering a comprehensive solution and you are going to see the same repeat of Microsoft." Google might not want to have draw the attention of the country's top Anti-trust official, but it had.

Levy's book isn't a character driven adventure book, like some others business books profiling big new web players. Rather, it's a detailed, thoughtful look inside a company who's founders planned to be the central force in an emerging Internet revolution. Looking back to the earliest days—it's clear that Google has achieved much of what it set out to do.

Read More: Most Innovative Companies: Google

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