I had a colleague a few years ago who joked about how his aging parents always referred to Google, the search engine, as “the Google,” as if the internet giant had become an entity of such massive, generic proportion that it deserved its own preposition, like “the city,” or “the ocean,” or “the internet.” The Google.
Popular culture has been producing fictionalized narratives about what life at Google might be like, to complement the hordes of reportage documenting the reality of the company. For an account of how it came to be, and an outsider’s view of the founders, Ken Auletta’s non-fiction book “Googled” tells a fascinating story.
But the real story of Google is about the people who work there, and what they are trying to accomplish. There are plenty of imaginary guesses as to what that’s like – in ‘The Internship,’ actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn actually have the blessing of Google’s marketing department to use the company’s real logo, and refer to it by name, in their imaginary take on what it’s like to work for the massive company.
The American author Dave Eggers has recently published “The Circle,” his take on life at Google, (or maybe some combination of Google and Facebook) and how the company is changing the world, but without the happy rainbows and moon-glow sheen of the Wilson/Vaughn film.
Of the two accounts, is one more accurate than the other? I would need first hand experience to answer that with any authority. My best guess is that Eggers is reaching closer to Google’s heart than Vaughn and Wilson.
At Eggers’s Google (He calls it ‘the Circle’) the campus glistens and sprawls, the office parties are legendary, and the ‘Circlers’ on staff are all brilliant, young intellectual heavyweights. But eventually, the villianization of privacy becomes overwhelming, the expectations of world-saving become untenable, and the marriage of life and work becomes suffocating.
Eggers’ Google follows these guiding principles, echoing Orwell’s Big Brother:
“SECRETS ARE LIES. SHARING IS CARING. PRIVACY IS THEFT.”
The Circle has incredible ambition – an imaginative product called ‘TruYou,’ which is your real identity, everywhere online; ‘SeeChange,’ a YouTube-like network of tiny cameras placed everywhere in the world, broadcasting everything to satisfy anyone’s curiosity; and ‘Transparency‘, which puts the cameras on individual persons, worn as a necklace, making their every movement a publicly broadcasted act. Numerous other realistic inventions are sprinkled throughout the story, introduced as positive societal game-changers, but simmering beneath the surface with totalitarian terror.
As Eggers’ describes these fictional innovations, without diving into technological reality, they actually seem very close to the realm of possibility – or at least near to the trajectory we can expect to see over the next few decades.
The story follows the path of Mae, an ambitious young woman drawn to the company by its promise of involvement, optimism and excellence. The journey she takes is one that moves from initial bewilderment at The Circle to a creeping acceptance and incapacitating servitude, while she alienates and betrays every real relationship in her life along the way.
The ugly consequences of The Circle’s mission to publicize everything are highlighted by the revulsion felt by Mae’s ex-boyfriend, who chastises her:
”Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall… It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.”
At Vaughn and Wilson’s Google, in “The Internship,” the company is nothing more than a place for two aging slackers to take a second shot at being financially responsible adults, who are capable of earning a living to support themselves – it just so happens this place is also Google, where everyone who wears the logo must be disruptively smart and attractive.
‘The Internship’ doesn’t touch on a single thing that Google actually does, or how their real products and technology are used by the world, until a thrown together final scene which vaguely hints that Google can help a small pizza shop – yet this is the fictionalization that the corporation gave a real blessing to, with ample permission to display their bright and shiny logo in nearly every scene, from the extensive coverage of the ‘nap stations’ on campus, and the ample free food and snacks, to the team-building trips at San Francisco strip clubs.
The British film critic Mark Kermode described The Internship as “one of the most witless, humourless, vomit-inducingly horribly self-satisfied, smug, unfunny comedies I have ever seen.”
So which of these representations is the real Google? Hmm, I don’t know…. Maybe you can Google it.
When I was a kid, I remember having playful arguments with friends during our imaginative games that were settled by how many multiples of a number we were better than one another – ‘I’m a million times taller’ or ‘I’m ten million times faster!’
One day, in a conversation with my Dad, he explained the number ‘googol,’ and I felt like a huge cloak had been lifted from the possibilities of the universe. It was the biggest number ever! In my imagination, I could be GOOGOL times faster!
So now, along with all the other cosmic and intricate coincidences that fill up my life, I’m an adult, and Google is still the easiest way to end an argument.