Obama at Google in 2004...

Huh... obviously no one who reads this blog has actually read The Audacity of Hope, or they didn't bother to warn me about the part with the Google visit.

... the most memorable part of the trip was a visit that I paid to the town of Mountain View, California, a few miles south of Stanford University and Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the search engine company Google maintains its corporate headquarters.

Google had already achieved iconic status by mid-2004, a symbol not just of the growing power of the Internet but of the global economy's rapid transformation. On the drive down from San Francisco, I reviewed the company's history: how two Stanford Ph.D. candidates in computer science, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had collaborated in a dorm room to develop a better way to search the web; how in 1998, with a million dollars raised from various contacts, they had formed Google, with three employees operating out of a garage; how Google figured out an advertising model-based on text ads that were nonintrusive and relevant to the user's search-that made the company profitable even as the dot-com boom went bust; and how, six years after the company's founding, Google was about to go public at stock prices that would make Mr. Page and Mr. Brin two of the richest people on earth.

Mountain View looked like a typical suburban California community-quiet streets, sparkling new office parks, unassuming homes that, because of the unique purchasing power of Silicon Valley residents, probably ran a cool million or more. We pulled in front of a set of modern, modular buildings and were met by Google's general counsel, David Drummond, an African American around my age who'd made the arrangements for my visit.

"When Larry and Sergey came to me looking to incorporate, I figured they were just a couple of really smart guys with another start-up idea," David said. "I can't say I expected all this."

He took me on a tour of the main building, which felt more like a college student center than an office-a cafe on the ground floor, where the former chef of the Grateful Dead supervised the preparation of gourmet meals for the entire staff; video games and a Ping-Pong table and a fully equipped gym. ("People spend a lot of time here, so we want to keep them happy.") On the second floor, we passed clusters of men and women in jeans and T-shirts, all of them in their twenties, working intently in front of their computer screens, or sprawled on couches and big rubber exercise balls, engaged in animated conversation.

Eventually we found Larry Page, talking to an engineer about a software problem. He was dressed like his employees and, except for a few traces of early gray in his hair, didn't look any older. We spoke about Google's mission-to organize all of the world's information into a universally accessible, unfiltered, and usable form-and the Google site index, which already included more than six billion web pages. Recently the company had launched a new web-based email system with a built-in search function; they were working on technology that would allow you to initiate a voice search over the telephone, and had already started the Book Project, the goal of which was to scan every book ever published into a web-accessible format, creating a virtual library that would store the entirety of human knowledge.

Toward the end of the tour, Larry led me to a room where a three-dimensional image of the earth rotated on a large flat-panel monitor. Larry asked the young Indian American engineer who was working nearby to explain what we were looking at.

"These lights represent all the searches that are going on right now," the engineer said.

"Each color is a different language. If you move the toggle this way"-he caused the screen to alter-"you can see the traffic patterns of the entire Internet system." The image was mesmerizing, more organic than mechanical, as if I were glimpsing the early stages of some accelerating evolutionary process, in which all the boundaries between men-nationality, race, religion, wealth-were rendered invisible and irrelevant, so that the physicist in Cambridge, the bond trader in Tokyo, the student in a remote Indian village, and the manager of a Mexico City department store were drawn into a single, constant, thrumming conversation, time and space giving way to a world spun entirely of light. Then I noticed the broad swaths of darkness as the globe spun on its axis-most of Africa, chunks of South Asia, even some portions of the United States, where the thick cords of light dissolved into a few discrete strands.

My reverie was broken by the appearance of Sergey, a compact man perhaps a few years younger than Larry. He suggested that I go with them to their TGIF assembly, a tradition that they had maintained since the beginning of the company, when all of Google's employees got together over beer and food and discussed whatever they had on their minds. As we entered a large hall, throngs of young people were already seated, some drinking and laughing, others still typing into PDAs or laptops, a buzz of excitement in the air. A group of fifty or so seemed more attentive than the rest, and David explained that these were the new hires, fresh from graduate school; today was their induction into the Google team. One by one, the new employees were introduced, their faces flashing on a big screen alongside information about their degrees, hobbies, and interests. At least half of the group looked Asian; a large percentage of the whites had Eastern European names. As far as I could tell, not one was black or Latino. Later, walking back to my car, I mentioned this to David and he nodded.

"We know it's a problem," he said, and mentioned efforts Google was making to provide scholarships to expand the pool of minority and female math and science students. In the meantime, Google needed to stay competitive, which meant hiring the top graduates of the top math, engineering, and computer science programs in the country-MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley. You could count on two hands, David told me, the number of black and Latino kids in those programs.

In fact, according to David, just finding American-born engineers, whatever their race, was getting harder-which was why every company in Silicon Valley had come to rely heavily on foreign students. Lately, high-tech employers had a new set of worries: Since 9/11 a lot of foreign students were having second thoughts about studying in the States due to the difficulties in obtaining visas. Top-notch engineers or software designers didn't need to come to Silicon Valley anymore to find work or get financing for a start- up. High-tech firms were setting up operations in India and China at a rapid pace, and venture funds were now global; they would just as readily invest in Mumbai or Shanghai as in California. And over the long term, David explained, that could spell trouble for the U.S. economy.

"We'll be able to keep attracting talent," he said, "because we're so well branded. But for the start-ups, some of the less established companies, the next Google, who knows? I just hope somebody in Washington understands how competitive things have become.

Our dominance isn't inevitable."

Interesting... I think I remember reading about his visit then (and I'm sure he's been back since), but I was quite surprised to run into a reference to Mountain View and Google while reading the book. Then again, the other day while going to pick up my son from Kindergarten, I had to wait in line behind a shitload of cars heading over to the head of Cisco's house while he held a gathering for McCain, so I guess that just goes with the territory. (Well the fucking Atherton territory at least - I'd love to start firebombing the general area, but 1) the gates on the houses are pretty high and 2) some of my kid's classmates live there and someone has to think of the children, right?)



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