Q&A: Googly-Eyed

In his new book, IN THE PLEX: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, technology reporter and Hackers author Steven Levy provides an inside look at the company that has irreversibly transformed the World Wide Web and the way we obtain and perceive information.

Levy takes his readers inside the Googleplex, Google's Silicon Valley headquarters, to reveal what drives -- as well as sets back -- the company whose name has worked its way into the Oxford English Dictionary as a transitive verb. From Google's future plans to previously inaccessible details about Chinese Web censorship, Levy dishes out the inside scoop for the first time, as told by the top guns of the company, including its legendary co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

The Prospect talked to Levy about his approach to reporting on Google and some of the challenges the company faces.

There have been a lot of books published about Google. What makes yours different?

I knew there were other books about Google. I went on this trip in the summer of 2007 with a lot of the top young managers at Google -- the future leaders -- and they visited different offices around the world -- literally around the world -- and I spent 24/7 with these people. It was a dimension of the company that I hadn't seen, even though I had covered it since almost the beginning.

And when you were on the inside, you could see how the company itself saw the idea like the Internet and saw how really unique it was, and how dramatically different it operated than other companies that I had seen. So I thought it would be interesting to do a whole book getting that kind of access -- being on the outside giving an inside view -- and I asked them if I could have that, and they said yes, so that's what distinguishes this book: that kind of access and opening up things that hadn't been told before about Google.

Can you talk a bit about what the research for your book entailed? How challenging was it to report what happened in China?

One thing I did want to do was certainly write about the international component, and I focused on China about that -- it was the most interesting thing happening in the company. And I went to China, I went there on that trip in 2007, and then I spent a week there in 2009, talking to the engineers, and later followed up on some of the things, some of the leads I had from that. I found that people were actually strikingly candid there, surprisingly so, and some of the interviews I had with Google's Chinese engineers were among the frankest, sometimes most critical, interviews I've had with any employees or any company that I've interviewed before on the record.

From Street View to Social Search, privacy concerns over Google's practices have grown. How does your book address these concerns?

That started with Gmail … when people worried if Google was reading their mail when they saw those ads. But in products like Street View, as you mentioned, and other things, Google has a lot of information about us, and I had some really frank conversations with people at Google about that. I would ask the people at Google, "Are you unhappy with what happens when you are Googled?" and sometimes it turned out that they were unhappy, that things came up, so it shows they were affected by it and had these conflicting feelings about their own company's power.

Google and Facebook are seemingly competing to be the most influential Internet company of the 21st century. How does Google shape up in the fight, and what are its disadvantages?

Well, Google isn't a social-networking company, but it realizes that it has to be involved deeply in social networking because of the information the people share with these networks, particularly Facebook. If Google could not be accessing the kinds of information that people give Facebook -- the kinds of information, like what people like and who their contacts are, where they are or what they're doing -- then Google's not going to be able to effectively deliver the information to people that they need. I outline a lot of missteps they've had and failed products in the field. But on the other hand, Google does have a lot of assets to bring to it -- they really have a strong background to analyze information. They do have people to make more useful information that people share with them and could deliver the information about what [users'] friends are doing.

What is Google up to next?

I think pretty much what we look for in the future of Google are things which exploit artificial intelligence to deliver us information or process information in a way that affects our lives more deeply, and sometimes it can happen in unexpected ways like the self-driving car that we learned about last year.

It uses artificial intelligence and smart algorithms to do all this stuff, so really, it is a classic Google kind of product, just used in an unexpected way.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.