Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why Google is the new NASA

Now I'm not old enough to know the '60s, that age when man was actually going to the moon for the first time. By the time I was born, the moon was a place man had been, and that's all there was to it. And frankly I'm not really old enough for the internet to be a mind-boggling concept either; by the time I reached maturity, chatting with other nations was commonplace. This isn't about making your place in the stars, though, nor making your place in the world-wide web.

In the 60s and 70s, really bright people had not only something to look up to, but a place they could believe in, a place that said, "Come here. Get away with war, away from profit-hoarding corporates. See the things you want to develop be built in front of your eyes. Watch people reinvent what's possible; then, have a hand in it yourself." That was NASA.

In ye olden times, there was a similar system called patronage. At the time, it was a decision of nobles or royalty to be the patron of someone who wished to do art or science for its own sake; looking back on it now, though, they are responsible for who knows how much of what we remember of the history--of the notable scientists and notable artists of the era, how many could only do their work because they didn't have to worry about having enough bread to eat?

NASA wasn't exactly a patron; they were an employer, one who gave science- and engineering-minded men and women a place. And frankly, since capitalism has taken root so deeply, that's exactly what's expected in today's world; if you don't demand that people work for their money, it's assumed, they'll laze about ungratefully and produce nothing of consequence, and don't you dare think about wasting money like that... not in America!

In Google we see a sort of mix of the two. Google is an employer first and foremost, but we also see in their policy a particular thing called "Innovation time off"; it's been covered elsewhere, but essentially, their engineers are told to spend a portion of Google's time (and consequently, a portion of Google's dime) working on something extra, which from my limited understanding is only limited to something that interests them. Google does get hold of the results of that labor, but even so, engineers flock to be allowed access to that environ.

Why? Let's put people, or at least prospective engineers, into categories--that never quite works, but it's illustrative. Let's say that they can either be searching for something to dedicate themselves to, or they have one and are looking for labor to carry it out. An engineer in search of a project may never find a project that is both interesting and pays well; an engineer with a project in need of labor may not be able to pay laborers enough without either becoming a money-grubber or risking a great deal by being indebted to a lender. Even in the latter case, if the project tanks, the engineer--and any other ideas he may have--are in the crapper, maybe for good, and so getting the project to completion stops being about doing it right as much as getting it finished. Similarly, in the first case, the project becomes more about designing the project to make cash than designing it to fulfill its purpose.

In the original patronage system, the artist had to answer only to their patron, who most likely wouldn't have brought them on if they hadn't thought that the end was worth the investment. At NASA, as long as the project was right, money was virtually no object; billions of dollars were spent, and although you would get your project finished, you weren't seeing much in the way of monetary reward for it. At Google, aside from your projects not being yours, they generally aren't all that highly monetized, but you can still see them completed.

And that's what an engineer--or an artist, or a scientist--wants. If an idea exists, and if it would be a good idea, it should get its day in the sun. You don't have to be a greed-monger searching for an infinite spiral of profits, and in fact that tends to get in the way. I think if there was a genuine, non-greedy, non-corrupt science/tech/engineering patronage, it would be heaven for those people, and maybe, just maybe, the world would be improved. Google comes close, though, and I think they should be lauded for that.

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