Google I/O 2013 keynote

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Larry Page

Larry Page: Deconstructing the sadness

For a couple of hours during Wednesday’s Google I/O keynote, I was surprised that Larry Page had opened up about his voice problems the day before, because there had been no sign of Google’s CEO on stage. But then he appeared, and held court at Moscone West for 45 minutes. (You can read a complete transcript of Page’s remarks.)

First he delivered a rambling speech, then he (surprisingly) answered some audience questions. It was a lengthy final act of what had already been a long, somewhat scattered presentation—but it provided some interesting insights into the thoughts of the man at the helm of one of the world’s most important companies.

Page is, fundamentally, a person who's incredibly optimistic about technology’s ability to change the world. But that optimism is tempered with a frustration about today’s technology industry. More than once he used the word “sad” to describe his feelings (yes, the inevitable Twitter parody account followed). He also complained about negative media coverage of Google while also throwing a few elbows of his own.

Technological optimism

Unlike some other tech CEOs we could mention, Page isn’t someone who came into the tech industry as a marketer looking for money. He’s a technology enthusiast at heart, and it still shows. “I think everyone today is excited about technology,” he said. “I look at the rate of adoption of [technology]… And it’s incredible.”

The opportunities we have are tremendous. We haven’t seen this rate of change in computing for a long time. Probably not since the birth of the personal computer. But when I think about it, I think we’re all here because we share a deep sense of optimism about the potential of technology to improve people’s lives, and the world, as part of that.

And I’m amazed every day I come to work, the list of things that needs to be done is longer than the day before. And the opportunity of those things is bigger than it was before. And because of that we, as Google, and as an industry—all of you—really only have one percent of what is possible. Probably even less than that.

Page kept coming back to the idea that the tech industry is only using one percent of its potential—a cousin, perhaps, to the myth about human brain capacity. He referred to it when he talked about being frustrated by government regulations making it hard for Google to disrupt the health-care industry and when talking about how companies should take more risks with out-of-category ideas like Google’s self-driving cars.

The purpose of technology, which Page also revisited repeatedly, is to help people stop performing unnecessary tasks and use more of their time to do things they enjoy.

I think back to a very long time ago. All of humanity was basically farming or hunting all the time. And if you lived at that time, you probably hoped that you could feed your family…. We don’t worry about that. And the reason for that is technology. We’ve improved how we grow food and so on, and the technology has allowed people to focus on other things if they choose. And that’s what technology lets us do, is free up ourselves to do more different things.

And I’m sure that people in the future will think we’re just as crazy as we think everyone in the past was in having to do things like farming or hunting all the time…. And imagine how self-driving cars will change our lives, and the landscape. More green space, fewer parking lots, greater mobility, fewer accidents, more freedom, fewer hours wasted behind the wheel of a car. And the average American probably spends almost 50 minutes commuting. Imagine if you got most of that time back to use for other things.

Enough with the negativity!

So what’s causing us to use only one percent of our technological-innovation brains, preventing our undersea bullet-train future from arriving? Turns out it’s negativity, especially from the media, that makes Larry sad.

And despite the faster change we have in the industry, we’re still moving slow relative to the opportunities that we have. And some of that, I think, has to do with the negativity. You know, every story I read about Google, it’s kind of us versus some other company, or some stupid thing. And I just don’t find that very interesting. We should be building great things that don’t exist. Right? Being negative is not how we make progress. And most important things are not zero-sum. There’s a lot of opportunity out there. And we can use technology to make really new and really important things to make people’s lives better.

Is the tech media snarky? You betcha. Does it often write stories that have little to no basis in reality or rational thought? All signs point to yes.

But the irony is rich, given that Page made that statement during the very same presentation in which Google announced Google Play Music All Access, a music subscription service that probably doesn’t count as “building great things that don’t exist.” Sure, for strategic reasons it makes sense for Google to build its own version of Rhapsody, Rdio, Spotify, and the rest. But All Access hardly qualifies as something new. It’s possible that it’s the best music subscription service yet invented, but chances are that if it succeeds, it’ll be doing so because it’s integrated by Google into Google’s offerings, not because it’s the best on its own.

Did we really need another music subscription service when we’ve already got several players competing hard? Is the net result going to be a more competitive music-subscription service space, or one that becomes less competitive due to Google stomping the competition? Regardless, this is yet another case of a big company deciding it needs to use its weight to enter a new category.

Now, Larry, I’m not saying this is a zero-sum game. The entrance of Google (and, who knows, Apple too?) into the music-subscription market will probably grow that market. But it would be naïve in the extreme to suggest that Google isn’t also trying to eat the lunch of the pioneers in that product category. There are lots of reasons for Google to launch a music service, but “building great things that don’t exist” is not one of them. If you’re going to suggest that humanity is being held back by tech companies playing zero-sum games and constantly reinventing the same set of wheels, you need to turn that mirror on yourself as well. What could Google have built instead of replicating Spotify? Or Facebook, with Google+? Or Amazon, with Google Play Books?

Google can be an innovative company, but it’s also playing the same hard-knuckle game as everyone else. It’s competing with Apple, with Microsoft, with Amazon, with Facebook. If Google was sitting under a cork tree, avoiding the fray and just building self-driving cars and the like, that would be an easier case to make. But Google’s in the fray. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Page was also disappointed with competitors not wanting to interoperate with Google. He saved some specific complaints for Microsoft, which recently integrated Google Talk into Outlook.com.

I’ve personally been quite saddened at the industry’s behavior... You just take something as simple as instant messaging. We’ve kind of had an offer forever that we’ll interoperate on instant messaging. I think just this week Microsoft took advantage of that by interoperating with us, but not doing the reverse. Which is really sad, right? And that’s not the way to make progress. You need to actually have interoperation, not just people milking off one company for their own benefit

Why the crazy projects?

One area where Page seems justifiably proud is in Google’s embrace of the crazy idea. Most specifically, in his “compatriot” Sergei Brin’s Google X division, which is focused on “real atoms and not bits.”

I think that possibilities for some of those things are incredibly great. If you look at technology applied to transportation, it hasn’t really started yet. We haven’t really done that. Automated cars are just one thing you could do. You could do many other things. So I think we’re very excited about that area.

But most importantly, he thinks that Google’s growth opportunities are greater in new areas, ones that don’t involve scaling up existing Google online products. Making those bigger can be a headache, while entirely new categories (such as self-driving cars) are much more manageable.

We also think it’s a way that the company can scale. I think that to the extent that all our products are interrelated, we actually need to do a fair amount of management of those projects to make sure you get a seamless experience, both as a user and a developer, that all makes sense. When we do some of these other kinds of things, like automated cars, they have a longer time-frame and less interaction. I actually encourage maybe more companies to try to do things that are a little outside their comfort zone, because I think it gets them more scalability in what they can get done.

And it turns out that, at least for Google, those crazy projects don’t cost too much—so they’re definitely a risk worth taking:

We’ve been surprised, also, even when we do things that are kind of crazy, like these automated cars, it turns out… the technology for doing mapping and automated cars turns out to be the same. And so we have a bunch of great engineers that just moved over from those efforts, and they did it naturally, and scalably.

People said you’re nuts, you’re a search company, why are you doing Gmail? Because we understood some things about data centers and serving and storage that we applied to email. And that was a great thing that we did that. And so I think almost every time we try to do something crazy we’ve made progress. Not all the times, but almost every time.

And the good news is, too, no matter how much money we try to spend on automated cars or Gmail in the early stages, they end up being small checks. So they don’t really cause a business issue, either. So I’m really excited about that. And I tried to talk about that in my remarks. That’s why I say we’re at one percent of what’s possible.

Taking the long view

Another insight into the way Page sees things: Several times he talked about taking the “50-year view” of things. He’s not just focused on what Google can do in its next fiscal quarter. He appears to be someone who is genuinely thinking about the long-term effects of technology, and in investment in technological development.

In my very long-term world view—you know, 50 years from now or something—hopefully, our software understands deeply what you’re knowledgeable about, what you’re not, and how to organize the world so that the world can solve important problems. You know, people are starving in the world not because we don’t have enough food. It’s ’cause we’re not organized to solve that problem. And our computers aren’t helping us do that.

That was in respnse to a question about software development, but he also took the long view in a question about how phone hardware will evolve in the future:

It’s very hard… to make a smart phone for a dollar. That’s obviously almost impossible to do. But I think if you took a 50-year time frame or something like that, if you took a longer view, you’d probably start to make the investments you needed to. And along the way, you’d probably figure out how to make money. So I just kind of encourage non-incremental thinking and a real, deep understanding of whatever you’re doing. That’s what I try to do.

Page also raised the 50-year time frame in an entirely different view, speaking with some frustration about how slow our society’s laws change.

You know, if you look different kinds of laws we make, and things like that, they’re very old. I mean, the laws when we went public were 50 years old. Law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old. Like, it’s before the Internet. That’s pretty major change in how you might go public. So, I think we need to—maybe some of you, maybe the million people watching you all love technology—maybe more of us need to go into other areas and help those areas improve and understand technology. I think that that’s not happened at the rate at it needs to happen.

In other words, another reason Google’s working at one percent of its capacity is that our legal and legislative systems (and the people in charge of them) are too slow to change and adapt to new technology. This would appear to cause him sadness, too.

Google Island, west of Burning Man

One of the odder themes of Page’s talk concerned his desire to build a sort of Burning Man-style society where people could test out new ways of living with technology. He came back to it more than once during the session.

We haven’t built mechanisms to allow experimentation. There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do ’cause they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation. And that makes sense, we don’t want our world to change too fast. But maybe we should set aside some small part of the world, you know, like going to Burning Man, for example… That’s an environment where people try out different things, but not everybody has to go. And I think that’s a great thing, too.

I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out: What is the effect on society? What’s the effect on people? Without having to deploy it into the normal world. And people who like those kinds of things can go there and experience that. And we don’t have mechanisms for that. So those are the kind of things I would think about.

He revisited the subject when talking about health care:

Why are people so focused on keeping your medical history private? The answer is probably insurance. You’re very worried that you’re going to be denied insurance. That makes no sense! So we should change the rules around insurance, so they have to insure people. The whole point of insurance is that it insures everyone.

So again, maybe we have a safe place where people can go and live in a world like that, where they make those kind of changes. We can see if they work, and then the world can learn from that and move on, but not everybody has to participate in it. Because I’m worried we’re not making some of the fundamental changes we need to make fast enough.

So what’s the plan here? Is Google going to create its own island nation somewhere, an experimental place where the only law is Google’s own and the only constant is change? They’ve probably got the money to do it. But it sounds a little too much like the plan of a James Bond villain to me.

Still, Page has a point. The friction caused by technological advancement pushing against slow-to-react cultural institutions can be tremendous. What’s the solution? Clearly, Page doesn’t think the answer is for the pace of technology to slow down. Bringing humility and doubt to the party is a start, but what happens then? Setting up your own Burning Man zone doesn’t seem practical. Though with Google, anything is possible. Maybe you’ll need to put on a blindfold and hop in the back of a self-driving car to get to the promised land.

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