Larry Page, Google's CEO and co-founder, closed out the Google I/O keynote last night with a sentimental, almost subdued speech. He didn't sound like a CEO. He sounded like a guy in charge of a company he genuinely thought could change the world. And it was a wonderful reminder that Google used to be, can be, and in many ways still is, so much more than a company.
Page began with a story about his father, and how the family used to drive across the country to see a robotics conference, and how lucky he was to be exposed to that at a young age. He argued that just the simple exposure to the broader world of technology was enough to open a cosmos of possibilities up to him. And you got the sense that he just wanted to use Google to drive the rest of us to whatever robotics conference is next.
About halfway into the speech, he came to a phrase that's as good a summation of Google over the past 18 months or so as anything. "We should be building great things that don't exist." Not focusing on the platform wars or sniping with other companies or aiming at small scale iterations. You aim for something like Glass, maybe, or something even more ambitious. You make what no one thinks is even possible yet. Consciously or not, Google's mirrored that philosophy recently, keeping its house in order with APIs and geek service, but expanding the scope of its aspirations, with Glass, the driverless cars initiative, or even crazy-affordable Chromebooks and high-speed internet.
Page argued that it's the small scale that we've been operating on that is what's really dissuading more projects like that. "If you're going to make a smartphone for a quid, like one pound, that's almost impossible," he responded to one question. "But if you took a longer view, like 50 years, you'd change how you look at your investments, and find a way to make money. You just need a deep understanding of what you're doing."
In his speech and the Q&A that followed, Page focused on things that didn't have anything, directly at least, to do with Android or Chrome or developing, at times just brushing past questions that seemed too small for his agenda for the day. Asked about a Glass production run, he stumbled through some pseudo-PR speak before saying he was just excited about how he'd use Glass with his kids. There was lip service to how much he appreciated the developers in attendance, but he focused more on the ways the things that Google is doing can help real people in real ways.
Yes, that's a sales pitch, and naive in a myriad of ways if you want to be a cynic, but that's not how it came off. He was optimistic about search or Google Now making people's lives easier, or less time behind the wheel of a car and more time with your family, but sounded more wistful about them as a means to get AWAY from your computers. Like a guy who got that we love our phones, but that shouldn't be the whole picture, and that computers are supposed to be there to help us.
"We're not organised enough to solve that problem," he said. "And our computers aren't helping us do that. We have to make computer software on the internet that helps solve those problems, that solves, as a side effect, that helps people become educated about what they're looking for. We're trying to serve both modes, and trying to get computers to help you do that."
And sometimes, how that happens might seem a little crazy. Larry had a bunch of totally rational ideas, that in that rationality were totally radical, about progress in legislation and the medical fields surrounding tech. "Like, the law can't be right if it's 50 years old," he said about the regulations in place, limiting what weird stuff Google might want to try. "It's before the internet. I think we need to, or the million watching, need to go into other areas and help those areas and help them understand technology. And we have't really. The other thing is we haven't built mechanisms for experimentations, because they aren't allowed by regulations because we don't want the world to change too fast."
A place, a mechanism, where people can just experiment. Do whatever the hell they want, free of laws and regulations and the glacial bureaucracy governing technologies it doesn't and likely never will understand. Crazy talk, basically, the kind of stuff you start throwing out a half hour before closing time in a bar argument. Except the guy saying it is Larry Page, and you feel almost compelled to believe him. Google's gone after medical advancements and lost — regulatory problems are too much unless someone locks down "technological leverage" to force an issue, as with DNA sequencing, Page says — but it's experienced enough that you wonder if Page's crazy ideas don't come from a place of deep understanding.
It's a magnetic way to think about the world. Page talked about his decision to disclose his vocal cords condition yesterday, and how a lot of people might not have because they were worried about their health insurance — and that's dumb. "We should change the rules around insurance," he said, almost impossibly matter-of-factly, as if that's how the world works. "The whole point of insurance is to insure people." It was heartfelt enough that you believed he meant it, and he's Larry Page, so you had to stop and wonder, What if he's right, and then, What if he can do it?
If he can, the best chance is probably just brute cash flow. There are a lot of zeroes in Google, after all, and Washington might be lost in a talk about anything more advanced than a graphing calculator, but it has always understood zeroes. Google's been painted as a tech baron recently, pouring cash into lobbying government for this or that, but here, for a split second, you had to wonder if it's possible its heart's still in the right place.
Rooting for lobbyists. That's what Larry Page did yesterday. He just talked about how he wishes Google could change the world, and oozed enough sincerity that we couldn't help but believe him, and in turn, in Google.