Assimilation Into the GooglePlex

Yesterday, we visited Google headquarters, in Mountain View, California. It was certainly an impressive experience, but I was left with some mixed feelings about the experience.

First of all, Google is obviously doing some really cool stuff. My computer and Internet experience would be very different without Google. I use Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Search, Chrome, and other products every day. Large parts of the Internet are financed by Google-served ads.

Google also has the deep pockets and corporate will to perform groundbreaking research. Their self-driving car is incredible, and Google Glass is pretty revolutionary (whatever you think about the benefit to humanity).

On the other hand, I found myself fairly uncomfortable at many points during our visit yesterday. One of the people we met was Craig Cornelius, a former Luther alumna who works on the internationalization team (i18n) at Google. One of the first things Craig said when he starting talking about Google was, “how much do you pay Google to use our services?” It’s a fairly innocuous question, but he clearly expected us to answer that we paid nothing.

When someone said that we paid with our personal information, he sort of acknowledged the point, but then immediately moved on to convincing us that because we don’t “cut Google a check,” we really aren’t paying anything. That unwillingness to acknowledge Google’s core money-maker (our data) leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I give them that data willingly, in exchange for some very useful services and products. But if Craig’s perspective is common at Google, I have to feel like they’re simply trying to forget (or convince the rest of us to forget) that we are paying them.

I did enjoying seeing the campus with Charles Banta (a recent Luther grad, and someone I’ve worked with at the Luther Tech Help Desk), and getting to see some of the perks that Googlers get. Google clearly views time that employees are not on campus as wasted time. And when you can eat, drink, sleep, get a haircut, get your car repaired, do your laundry, see a doctor, and work out on campus, what’s the point of going home?

Again, it would be fun to work at Google, and I know that Charles is really enjoying it. But I can’t help but think that your life would quickly become Google-centric. It’s one thing to love your job and want to work a lot (a situation I hope to find myself in when I enter the job market), but the word “assimilation” kept popping in to my head during the entire visit. (For a fictional take on this, I highly recommend reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. Just replace “The Circle” with “Google” and you’ll have a good idea how I felt visting Google.)

Two of the technical talks we heard, however, were fantastic. Craig Cornelius gave a lecture on the challenges of internationalization of Google products. It didn’t sound that interesting at first, but his team has to solve so incredibly difficult projects. How you design projects so that they work equally well with left-to-right AND right-to-left languages? How do you handle keyboard input in a language that has thousands of “letters”? How do you deal with one of the hundreds of ways a single date and time can be expressed?

We also had a chance to hear a little bit from Brian, an engineer on Google’s self-driving car team (unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch his last name). We didn’t have a chance to get as technical as I would have liked due to time issues, but he had a great introduction to the technology behind the “perception suite” that’s used to make the car “see”, and some interesting scenarios for possible societal changes that might be caused by the introduction of autonomous cars.