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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2011: Technology

The upshot is that almost everything people think they understand about intelligence, innovation, and choice needs to evolve as technology evolves. What Technology Wants is explicit acknowledgment that, now and tomorrow, trying to understand these three things distinct from our coevolving technologies is not merely self-deceptive but a denial of human potential.

Google’s Hive Mind

Arguably no company on earth better embodies Kelly’s thesis than Google. With its global reach, driverless automobiles, plethora of digital platforms, dizzying arrays of real-time algorithms, and density of computational expertise and server farms — not to mention its great and growing wealth — Google is a coevolving innovation ecosystem par excellence.

Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin do more than just listen to the technology; they’ve turned their company into a most fluent translator of its every hiccup, whisper, and utterance. Even bats must envy their flair for echolocation. They’ll hire the world’s best specialists, deploy microphones anywhere and everywhere, and do whatever it takes to ensure maximum technological intelligibility. But the genius of Page and Brin lies not in their own acuity, but with their ability to evoke it in others. They hunger for techno talent that listens even better than they do.

In the Plex flawlessly describes Google’s unique culture, which is dedicated to getting the world’s greatest technologists to innovate beyond disciplinary boundaries. Although Steven Levy does not quite offer — or create — fully rounded views of the many Googlers mentioned in his pages, his descriptions of their design sensibilities and innovation ethos are without peer. This is the best book about Google yet written, because Levy gets the “push the envelope until it rips” intellectual extremism that defines Google’s most effective intrapreneurs. Sure, they’re very smart. But their drive and ambition have to get Page and Brin hot and bothered, or they will not have much impact.

“Page once said that anyone hired at Google should be capable of engaging him in a fascinating discussion should he be stuck at an airport with the employee on a business trip,” Levy writes. “The implication was that every Googler should converse at the level of Jared Diamond or the ghost of Alan Turing. The idea was to create a charged intellectual atmosphere that makes people want to come to work. It was something that Joe Kraus [a top-tier Google hire] realized six months after he arrived, when he took a mental survey and couldn’t name a single dumb person he’d met at Google. ‘There were no bozos,’ he says. ‘In a company this size? That was awesome.’”

Serious readers will come away from In the Plex knowing in their heart of hearts that their own organizations aren’t as passionately committed to technology, technologists, and their creative coevolution as Google. Recruiting the very best quants and software jocks was simply the most obvious element in the coevolutionary equation. What really made the difference was the founders’ relentless emphasis on creating the fastest possible and best user experience. Milliseconds mattered. The fastest search had to be the best; the best search had to be the fastest. That is an innovation imperative requiring exquisite skills in listening to technology.

But Google’s founders — intuitively, analytically, or alchemically — thoroughly grasped that they had launched not a company but a global innovation ecosystem that technologically transformed value creation. The company’s culture evolved around the interaction of brilliant people with brilliant technology. It wasn’t just that smart Googlers made innovative technology; innovative technology made Googlers smarter. Google was as much a hive mind as an innovation ecosystem.

In the words of publisher and digital entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly, Google was the first real Web 2.0 enterprise: “The real heart of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence.” This was Google’s transcendental essence. Google understood and exploited the innovation ecosystem of network effects faster, better, and cheaper than anyone else. Virtually every successful investment the company made was based on the belief that the economics of network effects ensured that great innovation would be great business.

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