In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives

Daniel Soar writes:

Thanks to what it has learned so far, Google is no longer the merely impressive search engine it was a decade ago. Back then, it was assumed that the key to its success in delivering its (as it once seemed) uncannily accurate results was its first and best-known invention, PageRank, the algorithm that assigns to every page on the web a value indicating how authoritative it is, based on the number and the authoritativeness of the pages linking to it. Its inventor was Larry Page (hence, cunningly, PageRank), one of Google’s founders and now once more its CEO; and his model, as Steven Levy explains in In the Plex, was the system of scholarly citation, by which journal articles and books are considered important if they are referred to by other important journal articles and books. Levy is big on origins. Not everyone will think much of the suggestion that Page and Sergey Brin, his co-founder, got where they are today because they were both ‘Montessori kids’ who were taught from an early age to believe anything was possible. But he may be on to something when he says that Page’s academic family background – his father taught at Michigan State, and he hung out at Stanford as a child – meant that when he faced the problem of how to rank importance he recognised that the economy of the web was very similar to the economy of academia.

(LRB 6 October 2011)