The Google brain

The sun rises, people start searching. In Mountain View, Calif., that equation delivers the good life

Published October 30, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

The last time I visited the buildings where Google is headquartered was in the summer of 1995. The Mountain View office complex was then occupied by SGI, a computer company that once-upon-a-time served as Silicon Valley royalty but is now just a footnote in the history of high-end workstations. In the Valley, the giants of old are not even remembered by half-buried statues demanding that passersby "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" Instead, the nameplates get changed and we all just move on.

In 1995 I drove down to talk to a couple of SGI's hotshot programmers about VRML, the "virtual reality modeling language" that some people thought would deliver us the holy grail of a three-dimensional Web -- the Snowcrashian Metaverse. I remember being impressed to learn that the Coke machine sodas were free, although in retrospect it was obvious that unlimited sugar and caffeine are a smart corporate investment if what you receive in exchange is a few more hours of work from your geeks.

Google's elaboration of that principle to the nth degree isn't news to anyone. But it was still a shock to drop by for lunch and a tour of the campus to see (and taste) for myself the insanely gourmet delicacies of the lunch cafeterias. The luxuriantly appointed lounge areas, the hundreds of free bicycles for campus transport, the primo parking places for expectant mothers, vintage arcade machines in every corner, volleyball nets and solar panels, the free seminars on philosophy and neurobiology... Google is a fantasy version of what the corporate workplace environment could be -- and the employees are well aware of this. If you were a cynic you might wonder where it all will go when Google inevitably hits a rough patch. If you were a hopeless dreamer you'd imagine a world where everyone was showered with such love. If you were me, you found it exhilarating and alienating; profoundly unreal and yet abundantly concrete. I wanted to hop on one of the bikes and ride.

Either way, what isn't unreal is what people do with Google.

In the lobby area of Building 43, a flat-screen monitor features a fancy, gorgeous representation of the planet Earth, revolving on its axis. As the world turns, fountains of variously colored sparkly light shoot up from the earth's surface. The efflorescence is a real-time representation of Google search activity. The different colors represent different languages. As the United States rotates by, an explosion of red streams into the stratosphere. Mexico is a slightly less busy yellow. China is mostly asleep, Europe a riotous rainbow. Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly completely dark.

I stood with two Google employees and watched the world go round, mesmerized, once again, at the sheer spectacle of human curiosity. All over the world, people wake up, log on, and start searching. This is what we do. If one of the quintessential traits of humanity is an endless quest for more knowledge (or porn), then here is how it can look -- a technicolored extravaganza, an endless tsunami of fireworks. The world as giant brain, with each search a synapse firing.

A few months after I visited SGI in 1995, I toured the Palo Alto research laboratory of DEC, where the search engine AltaVista had been created, mainly as a demonstration project for the raw computing power of the DEC Alpha. AltaVista's creator, Louis Monier, gave me a tour of his server room. That day in July, when AltaVista ruled the search engine roost, the DEC Alphas in that room processed 13 million "queries." Tiny red lights blinked on and off.

In August 2007, according to ComScore, Google registered 37.1 billion queries, or well over a billion a day. Oddly, that number seems small to me. I figure I was good for a least a couple of million queries just by myself that month. China, with its 172 million Internet users and its heavily censored Web access is just getting started. Most of India, despite the country's vaunted software prowess, is quite offline.

Staring at that globe, I found it easy to dream of a profusion of color so thick and intense as to drench every inhabited spot on the planet. That there would be no darkness, that surely, with all the world so busily engaged in trying to find things out, that we would end up, somehow, figuring things out. I know we want to.

Must be something in the water down there in Mountain View.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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