Culture At Large

Monasticism and the Googleplex

David Greusel

Nathan Heller had me at the title: “Google’s Monastic Vision for the Future of Work.” Heller’s New Yorker article breezily condenses a decade or so of Google’s corporate real estate travails into a jambalaya of metaphors, all while describing a design project for their new headquarters that looks like the latest version of the Biosphere.

As the headline hints, Heller lands, finally, on the analogy of a monastery to describe the current (though not yet approved) version of the Googleplex. By this he means not a place of religious contemplation, but a self-contained community that promotes deep thinking by shutting out the wider world.

Is the proposed Googleplex a monastic environment? Yes, in the sense that it seeks to close off the unseemly aspects of the outside world. Yet the word I would use is hermetic. Like Apple’s grounded space station, the planned Googleplex is a city in miniature, with every imaginable convenience - and none of the inconveniences - of a real city. A utopia, in other words.

And as with all utopias, it’s wise to look behind the curtain at the little man pulling the levers. Because for all its lovely features - bike ramps, nutrition bars, on-campus housing, green roofs and on and on - the Googleplex is, ultimately, not a utopia but a walled compound, like Kennebunkport or the former home of the Branch Davidians. As much as it seeks to keep workers in (coddled though they may be), what it really seeks is to keep the world out. It’s James 1:27 – “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” – taken to extremes.

To whom or what does the monastery at St. Google want its acolytes to be devoted?

There is something to be said for monastic life. Resident brothers or sisters are able to devote themselves fully to God, unencumbered by the mundane entanglements that complicate life for the rest of us - friends, family members, dinnertime calls from the alumni association. One has to ask, though: to whom or what does the monastery at St. Google want its acolytes to be devoted?

My critique of monasticism is not new. I believe that devotion to God requires immersion in, not removal from, the grit and grime of life, most especially the grit and grime of cities, with all their well-known problems. Priests and nuns devoted to inner-city education are far more deserving of my admiration than the brothers making most excellent cheese in some remote hilltop retreat.

No great logical leap is needed to see that my critique of the Googleplex will follow the same lines. In sealing itself off from the bustle of Silicon Valley, Google is missing an opportunity for its workers to have richer lives, lived in messiness with millions of other Californians on the streets and sidewalks of whatever Bay Area city in which they find themselves. Heller gets at this point in his last paragraph, when he wonders if the Googleplex shouldn’t be more like a Brooklyn walkup than an idealized palace in the sky. I think he’s on to something.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Arts & Leisure, Art