On the lawn of a large nondescript office building, I face off with a giant cupcake. Capped with a swirl of white frosting and colorful sprinkles, it is three feet taller than I am. Other outsized pastries and sweets stand near it in a row along the neatly trimmed hedge. A ten-foot gingerbread man towers over the line-up, smiling blankly, while a cylindrical green android waves hello from between the cupcake and an outsized chocolate-frosted donut.
This scene is not make-believe; I’m not dreaming. But I do feel like a child again: small and full of wonder.
No, that’s not quite true.
I am experiencing the fantasy of a child I never was. Arrayed before me are things that a typical child would desire, amped up to tempt me as an adult.
No . . . it’s more complicated.
I’m visiting Google’s corporate campus in Mountain View, California. I re-mount my bike—a rickety girl’s one-speed with a red basket, garish yellow with lime-green tires—and pedal down Charleston Avenue, away from the android and the giant sweets. I continue past a 20-foot-tall blue robot that climbs through the roof of the next building’s atrium. These sculptures typify the aesthetic embraced and promoted here: bold geometric shapes, contrasting primary colors, simply-drawn cartoon characters, spaceships, rockets, interiors that evoke sized-up romper-rooms, and outdoor spaces that feel like playgrounds. The on-campus adjective used to describe this esthetic is “Googley”. When I ask people here for a definition, they usually say “Googley” simply means “fun”, but it seems to connote a very specific kind of fun. All things childlike, nerdy, goofy, and harmless can pass, but nothing edgy, complicated, cynical, or sexy makes the grade. Nothing adult.
Google is known for its philosophy of openness. While tech giants such as Apple are notorious for secrecy and iron-clad security, any Googler (as Google calls its workers, and they each other) can tap a name into an automated kiosk to print a guest pass for anyone—no questions or oversight. The onus of screening and supervising guests is gently placed on the individual worker-host. “Anyone could be a Tailgator—Ask to see a badge,” blandly states the half-man, half-alligator cartoon figure taped beside the campus’s many unguarded black glass exterior doors. A “Tailgator” is an uninvited outsider who might follow a Googler into a building. Once inside, few security notices are posted on the many bulletin boards that lend the Google workspaces an upscale university student center vibe. A “No Video Recording” flyer hardly registers, muffled in a multi-colored flutter of invitations to tango classes and barbecues, career counseling sessions, and tech-centered meet-ups. I feel reasonably free to roam and look about.
I pilot my garish bike on toward Landings Drive, numerous Googlers swirling around me on similarly ridiculous cycles. Did Google intend to make looking silly the hidden cost of free transportation? Google’s eccentric bike fleet is the preferred mode of transport between the black-windowed white-and-beige structures that spread over the mile-square campus. These bikes litter the lawns and sidewalks and cluster at building entrances, awaiting riders like strange loyal creatures from a whimsical children’s book. Guests are not supposed to ride unescorted, but so far no guard has approached me. The security guards I do see are nondescript and unthreatening in their khaki pants and green polo shirts—no hats or equipment belts; they’re dressed as suburban dads. No one here looks like a cop.
Google seems a remarkably desirable place to work; a Candyland made real. So much here is designed to entice. Although I understand that there is nothing I would or could do here professionally, I can’t help slipping into fantasies of basking in the exquisite perks of Googler-life. There are so many:
- Free food everywhere! Café’s, restaurants, “micro-kitchens” (in which you can pull shots of locally roasted espresso and grab fruit or carrots or pizza or chocolate or Chinese food.)
- Dogs are welcome wherever you are! (Never feel guilty because poor Rover’s waiting for you at home.)
- Free gym, yoga, basketball, Crossfit, fencing —you name it! (Work out during work!)
- Napping pods! (In those stressful moments when choosing between sushi, charcuterie and Croatian kebabs brings on a meltdown, you can give yourself a little time-out.)
- Laundry! (Throw your dry-cleaning and dirty clothes in a bin and Google-as-Mom will return them pressed and clean. Need your shoes fixed too? Just toss ‘em in the bin, Son!)
- Service your car! (Don’t fuss with some grubby garage! Google’s mechanics come in and tune her up while you work.)
- . . . but you don’t need a car, because the G-bus will pick you up in your neighborhood every morning and get you to campus in time for a nice hot breakfast. (And it’s not some homely yellow corrugated bus, but a tall, sleek and glossy white one! And it drops you safely home after work too!)
- 20% of your clocked-in time to work on whatever you want! (Not that there is a time clock—honor system all the way! You’re a big boy and we trust you to do the right thing.)
- Recycling, composting, and bio-sustainability! (Google makes you feel good about getting green—and better still, you wipe your conscience clean by just showing up—no need to root around in the smelly old trashcan separating greasy cans from sticky plastic bottles.)
- Oh and . . . FREE FOOD EVERYWHERE! Did I mention?! (This morning I sat
in a company café next to a round young Googler who was contentedly
chowing down on two epic breakfasts set side-by-side in front of him. I
can’t help thinking about Hansel, fattened and pacified by sweets in
the witch’s kitchen. There is a softness to the typical Googler’s
figure—not a fatness, per se, but angles have been padded and smoothed.
Similarly, personalities seem de-fanged, missing the sorts of rough
edges one would expect to arise within such a large sample. Google
seems a veritable kingdom of niceness that lives up to the company’s
motto: “Don’t be evil.”)
In my fantasies, employment here feels a lot like stepping backwards through time—receding toward some misty, innocent utopian past. Back toward the relative freedoms of college, releasing the responsibilities I’ve shouldered as an adult. What sweet relief! No more shopping or bills or taxes or laundry or social uncertainty. No empty fridge. I’m moving back in with Mom and Dad (but without the inconvenience of their personalities!) How far can it go? Will I eventually resume sucking my thumb?
The fantasy becomes uncomfortable. I am somehow still attracted yet deeply repelled.
These Googlers do work, and they work hard. They aren’t lying about in diapers waiting for a change, they are young and smart and ambitious. And Google wants to help them work: “Just concentrate on your math quiz, Son; don’t worry about picking up those dirty dishes.”
What employee wouldn’t want such accommodations? Shouldn’t a company try to make its workers comfortable if it can afford to? Isn’t such pampering a signifier of respect—a respect commonly absent in this era of scorched-earth bosses and cowering labor? What’s wrong here? Am I just jealous?
I think it goes beyond my own petty envy. I can’t help but think the Googler needs something resistant—something unyielding to push against—something besides whatever work Google sets him upon. Is he being prevented from some important aspect of defining himself as an individual? Can he develop truly independent perspectives, and make choices unconstrained by the norms and aims of a corporate “parent”? Could a Googler ever push back from such a plush spot without being swallowed into pillows and mush?
My friend B_______, who teaches nearby at Stanford University, observes a common current of disaffection among his Googler friends and acquaintances. “They can’t help liking it,” he said, “but they are all afraid of liking it too much. Everyone says they are passing through, and Google is not where they will end up, but mostly they stay.” He says the “drinking the Kool-Aid” metaphor is recurrent. Each claims he will refuse it, but in saying so confirms that he sees it offered—that he sees the bewitching red brew being ladled out, and his fellow Googlers slurping it up . . .
The breeze, suddenly cold, raises the hair on my arms. I grip the handlebars and pedal faster, now sure that past the flashing glare of all these brightly-painted toys moves something darker. Something lurks within Google’s sunny beehive of sprawling parking lots and black-eyed buildings, and it is not the least bit Googley. This place does have an edge, and now I can feel it: icy and knife-sharp, a steely point driving toward some hidden aim, kept cleverly just out of sight.
As I pass 2000 Charleston, scenes of corporate-fascist world dominion playing in my head, they appear. On the plaza outside the visitor center, six Imperial Stormtroopers stand idle in their unmistakable white armor, their laser guns held across their chests or at their sides. I realize now that I’ve actually expected to see Stormtroopers since I got to Mountain View. They’ve been evoked by the glossy white logoless G-busses with their black trim, and by the death-star black mirror windows of the office park. They belong here. As I walk up the hill to the plaza I notice that R2D2 is there too, tipped on his side and looking a lot like a pimped-up trashcan. And that must be Chewbacca, illogically short and scrawny, holding his faux-fur latex mask flattened in his lap as he reclines in an old lawn chair. Darth Vader (pretty convincing) is telling a joke to a guy with a camera; he has a device in his mask that is producing a good approximation of the villain’s classic walkie-talkie wheeze. As I near the row of Stormtroopers, I note that their costumes range from deluxe LucasFilms replicas to dime store junk. One trooper, lacking leg armor entirely, has substituted flimsy grey pajama bottoms.
Witnessing this elaborately pathetic ritual of Googler dress-up, I can’t help smiling. I am looking at people—people too wonderfully real and messy to be contained within the simple fiction of a Star Wars character or a Googler corporate identity.
Google might want its Googlers to strive away in sated oblivion, sealed within the company’s constructed dreamworld, but the school-play silliness of these costumes reassures me that Google can never make its corporate nirvana airtight. Holes will appear in its silky fabric alowing time and reality to bleed in, and once-were-Googlers to escape. The donut sculpture will never satisfy a sweet tooth. The napping pods and gourmet cookies won’t numb the sting of lost love, or fill the void of loneliness. Death and disease will remain relentless Tailgators, and age will mar and maim the Googleyest faces and figures. The dream membrane remains permeable. The Stormtrooper has no pants.
I sigh, relieved, and then inhale deeply, filling my lungs with sweet warm air that dissolves the last remnants of my dread. My body relaxes, warmed by the golden California sunshine that washes the hillside. It’s a gorgeous day. Obi Wan Kenobi, a cherub-faced Indian man in glasses, sits alone on a stone bench munching a freshly baked scone and chatting on his cell. When crumbs fall he absently brushes them from the terrycloth of his brown bathrobe, and perhaps feeling my gaze, he meets my eyes for a moment and smiles. Slipping back into his phone conversation, the Jedi sips and savors what looks like the perfect cappuccino.
I realize I’m a bit hungry. Where’s that bike?
—Mark DeChiazza July, 20, 2013
Many thanks to Kirven Blount for editing
Disclaimer: This essay was manufactured in a facility that processes subjective perception. It may contain traces of: misinterpretation, grandstanding, hyperbole, factual inaccuracy, confusion, and/or cheap humor. It has not been fact-checked, and is intended for entertainment purposes only.
Photos: CJ Lippsteau, Alyson Herreid, Christophe Wu/Google