Brain Pickings

In The Plex: How Google Changed Our Lives and Everything Else

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What red gym balls have to do with censorship, privacy and organizing all the world’s information.

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what beloved technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

For a taste, here’s Levy on what Google does and doesn’t know about you:

(For a more worrisome take, see Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

James Gleick writes in the New York Review of Books:

Most people have already forgotten how dark and unsignposted the Internet once was. A user in 1996, when the Web comprised hundreds of thousands of ‘sites’ with millions of ‘pages,’ did not expect to be able to search for ‘Olympics’ and automatically find the official site of the Atlanta games. That was too hard a problem. And what was a search supposed to produce for a word like ‘university’? AltaVista, then the leading search engine, offered up a seemingly unordered list of academic institutions, topped by the Oregon Center for Optics.” ~ James Gleick

(Gleick should know — he is the author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, easily the most important book on media history and information theory to come by in decades.)

More than an ambitious — and often entertaining — profile of one of today’s most powerful companies, In The Plex captures a priceless piece of cultural history, one that has shaped and continues to shape how we interact with information, the world and each other.

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Where Children Sleep: James Mollison’s Poignant Photographs

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What the Amazon rainforest has to do with the Kaisut Desert and Fifth Avenue luxury.

On the heels of this morning’s homage to where children read and learn comes a curious look at where they sleep. That’s exactly what Kenyan-born, English-raised, Venice-based documentary photographer James Mollison explores in Where Children Sleep — a remarkable series capturing the diversity of and, often, disparity between children’s lives around the world through portraits of their bedrooms. The project began on a brief to engage with children’s rights and morphed into a thoughtful meditation on poverty and privilege, its 56 images spanning from the stone quarries of Nepal to the farming provinces of China to the silver spoons of Fifth Avenue.

From the start, I didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ in the developing world, but rather something more inclusive, about children from all types of situations. It seemed to make sense to photograph the children themselves, too, but separately from their bedrooms, using a neutral background.” ~ James Mollison

Perhaps most interestingly, the book was written and designed as an empathy tool for 9-to-13-year-olds to better understand the lives of other children around the world, but it is also very much a poignant photographic essay on human rights for the adult reader.

7-year-old Indira works at a granite quarry and lives in a one-room house near Katmandu, Nepal, with her parents, brother and sister.

4-year-old Jasmine has participated in over 100 child beauty pageants and lives in a large house in the Kentucky countryside.

4-year-old Romanian boy who shares a mattress with his family in the outskirts of Rome.

8-year-old Justin plays football, basketball and baseball. He lives in a four-bedroom house in New Jersey.

Alyssa lives in a small wooden house with her family in Appalachia.

8-year-old Ahkohxet belongs to the Kraho tribe and lives in Brazil's Amazon basin.

9-year-old Dong shares a room with his parents, sister and grandfather, growing rice and sugar cane in China's Yunnan Province.

9-year-old Delanie aspires to be a fashion designer and lives with her parents and younger siblings in a large house in New Jersey.

9-year-old Tsvika and his siblings share a bedroom in an apartment in the West Bank, in a gated Orthodox Jewish community known as Beitar Illit.

9-year-old Jamie shares a top-floor apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue with his parents and three siblings. The family's two other homes are in Spain and the Hamptons.

10-year-old Ryuta is a champion sumo-wrestler living in Tokyo with his family.

12-year-old Lamine sleeps in a room shared with several other boys in the Koranic school in their Senegalese village.

11-year-old Joey, who killed his first deer when he was seven, lives in Kentucky with his family.

14-year-old Irkena is a member of the semi-nomadic Rendille tribe in Kenya and lives with his mother in a temporary homestead in the Kaisut Desert.

14-year-old Prena is a domestic worker in Nepal and lives in a cell-like room in the attic of the house where she works in Katmandu.

14-year-old Erien slept on the floor of her favela abode in Rio de Janeiro until the late stages of her pregnancy.

15-year-old Risa is training to be a geisha and shares a teahouse with 13 women in Kyoto, Japan.

Mollisey is represented by MAP and Flatland Gallery, and published by Chris Boot.

Where Children Sleep is reminiscent of Peter Menzels’s voyeuristic tours of the world through people’s diets and possessions, and JeongMee Yoon’s look at the conditioning of children’s gender identity through the color schemes of their bedrooms. The book’s glow-in-the-dark cover, a-la Radioactive, is a wonderfully playful cherry on top.

All images courtesy of James Mollison via The New York Times

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Letters to Children from Cultural Icons on the Love of Libraries

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A reading manifesto from Dr. Seuss, or what space ships have to do with fairy godmothers and civil rights.

In the spring of 1971, just before the opening of Michigan’s first public library in Troy, an audacious librarian by the name of Marguerite Hart set out to inspire the city’s youngsters to read and love the library. So she dreamed up a letter-writing campaign, inviting dozens of cultural luminaries — writers, actors, musicians, politicians, artists — to share what made reading special for them and speak to the importance of libraries. She got 97 letters in return, spanning 50 states and a multitude of occupations, including notes from such icons as Dr. Seuss, Neil Armstrong, E.B. White and Isaac Asimov. The collection became known as Letters to the Children of Troy and is available online in its entirety, from beloved children’s book illustrator Edward Ardizzone’s four-page hand-written letter, to the charming doodle of artist Hardie Gramatky, to the marvelous letterheads of various state senators. Gathered here are a few favorites from it, with a semi-secret wish that some thoughtful indie publisher would turn this into a beautiful book that belongs in a library.

Dear Children of Troy

Your library is more full of good things than a candy store or a pirate’s chest. What you get from books is not only pleasurable and valuable but it lasts all the rest of your life.

I send my love to all of you.” ~ Ben Spock

A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your questions answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.” ~ E.B. White

Dear Boys and Girls:

Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you — and most of all, a gateway to a better and happier and more useful life.” ~ Isaac Asimov

This note from the Mayor of Cleveland makes one wish today’s government would be full of more people like him.

As a young person, I was encouraged by my mother, my teachers and librarians to read for recreation, for information and for knowledge. Let me encourage you, as they encouraged me; for this country, despite all its failures and present inconsistencies, does promise and deliver much to those who prepare themselves.” ~ Carl B. Stokes

Here’s Helen Gurley Brown, one of the longest-tenured magazine editors-in-chief in history, spearheading Cosmopolitan for 32 years, also the author of the 1962 cult-classic, Sex and the Single Girl:

Dear Children:

Did you ever think of all the people you could be meeting at your library? Why — acrobats, singers, baseball players, knights in armour, kings, queens, elephants, dolls, jacks-in-the-box, angels, fairy godmothers, actors, astronauts, tuba-players — in fact, anyone you wish, through books!

You’ll never forget these friends of fantasy-land once you know what warm companions they are. Happy exploring!” ~ Helen Gurley Brown

And the governor of Vermont, with a timely sentiment on empathy and civil rights just as women and blacks were beginning to enter the workforce with critical mass:

Read! It is nourishing, civilizing, worthwhile. Read! It destroys our ignorance and our prejudices. Read! It teaches us to understand our fellowman better and, once we understand him, it will be much easier to love him and work with him in a daily more complex society.” ~ Deane Davis

My favorite has to be Neil Armstrong:

Knowledge is fundamental to all human achievement and progress. It is both the key and the quest that advances mankind. The search for knowledge is what brought men to the moon; but it took knowledge already acquired to make it possible to get there.

How we use the knowledge we gain determines our progress on earth, in space or on the moon. Your library is a storehouse for mind and spirit. Use it well.” ~ Neil Armstrong

Explore the full collection in the Letters to the Children of Troy archive and, while you’re at it, consider donating to your public library. (Every month, I allocate a portion of Brain Pickings donations to the New York Public Library.)

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