Tuesday, June 14, 2005

curmudgeon prophet

I was invited to give a talk at Google headquarters down in Mountain View last Tuesday. They sent somebody to fetch me (in a hybrid car, zowee!) from my hotel in San Francisco -- as if I had any choice about catching a train down, right? Google HQ was a glass office park pod tucked into an inscrutable tangle of off-ramps, berms, manzanita clumps, and curb-cuts. But inside, it was all tricked out like a kindergarten. They had pool tables, and inflatable yoga balls, and $6000 electronic vibrating massage lounge chairs, and snack stations deployed at twenty-five step intervals, with lucite bins filled with chocolate raisins and granola. The employees dressed like children. There were two motifs: "skateboard rat" and "10th grade nerd." I suppose quite a few of them were millionaires. Many of the work cubicles were literally modular children's playhouses. I gave my spiel about the global oil problem and the unlikelihood that "alternative energy" would even fractionally replace it, and quite a few of the Googlers became incensed.

"Yo, Dude, you're so, like, wrong! We've got, like, technology!"

Yeah, well, they weren't interested in making a distinction between energy and technology...

It is hardly necessary for me to link to Kunstler at this point, but I couldn't resist. Judging from the book flap in The Long Emergency, he's grown a beard and thus lacks only a sign and a corner to stand on. After a recent book tour, he became filled with a furious apocalyptic anger, and the dark side of the force flowed. And that means good writin'! Go check it out.

For those of you who don't work in software, his description of Google is spot on. Whoever invited Kunstler to Google is likely to find their classic Stars Wars action figures hanging by the neck from the coffee maker tomorrow. I would add that that particular workplace motif is in general decline, as the ebullience of the roaring nineties fades. Google must prop up the kindergarden lifestyle (juice and naps for employees, which we grownups call "massages") because they have a mythology to uphold, just like Microsoft will never stop giving out free soda and popcorn to its employees.

But further, I think one of the key realizations that Kunstler astutely makes here, and in his books, is that those of us who grew up in a technology saturated environment have great difficulty separating energy from same. The day is coming when everyone will be able to discern the difference between technology that is powered by energy, and technology which produces energy. Meanwhile, energy has actually been quite invisible in polite society; who among us would start talking light sweet crude at a party?

Not I, not yet. Now excuse me, I need to throw my Atari t-shirt in the wash and go find my yoga ball.


At 6:26 AM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Big Gav said...

I've talked light sweet crude at a party (only once mind you).

I did have good reason to though, as the guy I was talking to was working on estimating his company's reserve extraction profile over the coming years - something I found intensely interesting, which disconcerted him immensely (I imagine people normally either walk away or contract narcolepsy when such a topic is brought up). His initial wariness was replaced by outright alarm when I started muttering about Hubbert's Peak and the imminent depletion of Ghawar.

As for Google, I'd still love to work there for a while even if they are nerds (shame its in the valley as I've always found the grim physical reality of the place completely at odds with its shiny virtual image) - even if just to learn the dark secrets of pagerank manipulation...

If, as I suspect, you're one of those free soda swilling, popcorn eaters to the north, then I've got to say your reputation for evil is thoroughly belied by the pleasant campus you dwell in - I drove through there once purely out of curiosity as part of a generally weird Anchorage to LA road trip and quite liked the place.

At 8:51 AM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

The $64,000 question is why Google invited Kunstler in the first place? Or in general, why do folks invite him to speak if they don't at all like what he is going to say? All you have to do is type kunstler into Google, and you know what you need to know. You don't even have to read the book...

I too would at least like to see google, microsoft, and amazon before the peak oil crash. It would be very interesting to see the height of technological society before it falls.

At 8:24 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger WHT said...

Good point, Matt.

As they say in the software world, "They aren't eating their own dog food"

At 12:11 AM, June 15, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

I'm sure some people at Google were interested in what Kunstler had to say. I mean, I endorsed his take on software peeps, but remember there is a certain acid wit and a flair for the dramatic with a novelist like Kunstler when describing a company like Google.

So take what he says with a grain of salt - and me, too. :)

At 10:08 AM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A software engineer myself, I must say I had a gooood laugh reading this article. The Google office description is flawless. I work in a small Canadian sweat shop-like software office but have visited numerous valley establishments, and had exact same experience.
To give an insider perspective, I must say that most of these nerds live in completely illusionary worlds, hence the buzzword “virtual”. They do not realize that one good blackout can wipe out all of the fruits of their cubical dwelling existence. Only once the reality dawns and they realize a computer is useless as a food making product, will they be able to see through the smoke, maybe…


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