In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives
By: Steven Levy
This review comes 6 years after In the Plex hit the market, but when I saw this book in a friend’s room, I knew I had to read it. I’m not that familiar with Steven Levy, though I do have his Hackers on my TBR shelf. I was interested in finding out how the search engine that has essentially corned the market came into existence. I’ve used Google’s competitors, including Yahoo! and Bing, but I haven’t found any of them to be as useful as Google (for a while I used Bing when I needed to find images, but Google’s image search has since improved, and I’m now pretty swift at scrolling through Flickr, Google Images, and Wikimedia Commons for images I need).
In the Plex also caught my eye because googolplex is my favorite number. I’ve always had at least a passing interest in science and technology, and one day in fourth grade I read a book about numbers that introduced me to “googolplex.” A googol is a “1” followed by 100 zeros, a googolplex is a “1” followed by a googol of zeros (which turns out to be (10)^(10^100), basically a ton of zeros). To me, it makes sense that a search engine aimed at giving millions (and eventually, billions) of results would name itself after the second largest named number. For reference, googolplexian is the largest named number, followed by googolplex and googol. There are numbers larger than googolplexian but they don’t have names. “Infinity” is a concept that denotes a large number, but it is not technically a number itself. One kind of infinity can be larger than another infinity (here’s an awesome breakdown of number theory as it relates to large numbers, if you’re interested).
Levy’s In the Plex is an accessible peek inside the world of the technological megalith. Written in simple English, Levy provides the lay person details regarding how Google operates, and gives a pretty comprehensive history of the company. It even paints a portrait of Google’s inventors and other important actors in the success of the company. By the time I finished reading, I felt like I thoroughly understood Google and its inventors. I will admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Levy’s writing style but I do applaud him, considering how well he managed to explain complicated, abstract concepts in artificial intelligence. People who do not know much about Google or computers should not be afraid to read this book. Actually, I would recommend this book to those sort of people, because it will help them better understand the technology they use everyday.
A few days ago, I helped my parents set up their new Windows 10 desktop. I downloaded Google Chrome and a few other software items, all while my mother looked over my shoulder. Every step of the way she asked me questions about RAM (random access memory, which essentially allows certain frequently used files to quick launch), cookies (which help identify your browsing habits and help websites remember you– don’t worry it’s mostly anonymized), and privacy. I assured her that the cookies are pretty harmless, and that she didn’t have to worry about me bogging down the memory with downloads. The computer and its related systems will quickly learn a user’s habits and will store and retrieve files accordingly to create an optimized experience. Some of these concepts are explained in In the Plex.
In the Plex, is not without drawbacks. As I mentioned earlier, Levy’s writing style felt a little bit awkward for the type of material he is handling. At times, I felt like the chapter titles were headlines which, to me, is inappropriate in a book that isn’t primarily about media. Since Levy is a media writer, though, I forgave him for this. The last chapter and the epilogue of In the Plex were a little lackluster. I was somewhat disappointed in the way the book ended, but not in the entire book. Since 6 years have passed between In the Plex’s publishing and my reading it, some of the information was a little outdated. Software like Google Drive is already second nature to the avid Google user, as are a few other features mentioned in the book. I think it’s about time Levy wrote and additional chapter or two about the updates Google has made since the book’s first publishing. At the very least, he should write an author’s note in the beginning outlining a few key difference. Still, for someone who haven’t yet learned how to fully unlock the capabilities of Google, these tidbits of information are invaluable.
Overall, I was surprised by how interesting In the Plex was, considering the sheer amount of information Levy included in the book. Even as someone who knows what data mining is and how the internet operates, I did not find myself bored by the descriptions. Levy’s light tone and father-like humor (he tells “dad jokes,” the kind of jokes that make young adults groan and smack their foreheads) kept me entertained, and the drama of the years when it was unclear whether Google would sink or swim kept me hooked. I will warn you, dropping random trivia and tidbits related to Google and computers may be a side effect of reading In the Plex. After reading, I felt I could speak on the concepts in book with authority. It also helped me destroy my family in a home game of Jeopardy! when the category came up. I gave the book 4 stars on Goodreads because I found the odd writing style and outdated information to be key pieces of a 5-star book, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give the book my highest recommendation. This book is good enough to land on my favorites shelf, but not good enough for me to keep a physical copy on hand. Rather, I’m going to do as my friend did and pass the book on.