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Our California Trip, Pt. II

The last stop on our recent California tour was at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Ca. This appearance had come about kind of casually, so we hadn’t thought about it much beforehand. The Google folks asked us to blog about our impressions, to be posted on the Google blog, and we did. Here’s what we had to say.

To: All Googlers

From: The Freakonomics Guys

Date: Aug. 4, 2005

Re: Our visit last week

We didn’t know quite what to expect at Google. A few months ago, we had been invited to give some kind of presentation at Google while we were in California. Were we interested? Sure, we said. When something is that far away, you’ll generally agree to it without much thought.

Because we got to the Googleplex late — we were coming from a meeting with some people who may want to turn Freakonomics into a board game (!) — our tour was cut a little short. Still, we did manage to see:

— Your Google-logo-colored pylons at the extremely low-key “security” post.

— Your very user-friendly name-tag-generating/sign-in computer.

— Your very, very fancy toilets.

— Your rack of primordial servers with the thin layers of cork that used to make the fire department so nervous.

— Your roaming dogs, one friendlier than the next.

— Your beautiful scrolling query screens, which are a great piece of conceptual art: Hillary Duff … pits puppies … Yenifer Lopez … Spanish Dictionary. (We were a little disappointed to not catch a glimpse of “Freakonomics” but maybe it got caught in your filter: people sometimes give it some pretty deviant spellings.)

— Your quartz rug, robust cacti, fancy yurts, and ecologically sound staircase in the Africa building.

Then it was time for our “presentation.” We left Africa and Hunter Walk walked us over to the next building. It felt like North America but we didn’t catch the name. Hunter is tall, and friendly, and smart, and enthusiastic, and from New York; we couldn’t have liked him more.

But then, when he led us into the room where we were speaking: Whomp! It wasn’t some little room, with a conference table and a couple dozen people, as we’d imagined. It was a big big room, rows and rows of chairs, all of them filled with Googlers, and many many more Googlers sitting on the floor and standing in the back and — well, not exactly hanging from the rafters but it felt like it. The walls were black, the stage lights white-hot, the room alive with chatter. This wasn’t a presentation; this was a presentation. It was a Sally Field moment: They like us! They really like us! (We realize, of course, that the average Googler is far too young to catch this reference. Don’t worry; it’s not very funny anyway.) As we picked our way through the floor-sitting Googlers, it felt like we should have been carrying a couple of Telecasters; it was likely the closest that either of us will ever get to having a rock-star moment. (In truth, Dubner was a minor-league rock star but that was in the late 1980’s, so it doesn’t really count.)

The other thing is, Hunter had ordered a few hundred copies of Freakonomics from Amazon* and passed them around, so now, looking across the long rows of chairs, you could see one Googler after the next with the open book in his/her lap, as if preparing to hear a speech from Chairman Mao. It was, well, freaky. A bit like happening upon your own funeral. *[We immediately wondered if Hunter’s order would be counted as a bulk sale, and therefore underweighted on the N.Y. Times’s best-seller list.]

We had to talk things over for a few minutes to decide what kind of talk to give. We are not very practiced at this. Hunter was encouraging, and patient. There was one podium and one microphone, so we decided to do a tag-team talk, to discuss the book (why crack dealers still live with their moms, e.g.) and to tell a few stories based on research that’s happened since the book (monkey prostitution at Yale, e.g.). We seemed to do okay, based on the fact that you all laughed a lot, although it’s quite possible you were just laughing at us. The biggest laugh came when Levitt mentioned that we spoke at Yahoo! a day earlier, and got a much smaller crowd. The funny thing is, that was really true. Your turnout was about double Yahoo!’s. On the other hand, that means Google may have lost twice the productivity — unless you think that our Freakonomics talk may have somehow increased productivity, in which case you thought a lot more of it than we did. The best question of the day was this: “What would you do with our data if we could give it to you?” Believe us, we’ve thought about that quite a bit. We’ll get back to you.

After our talk, we had a few minutes to hang around and talk with miscellaneous Googlers. This was the most impressive slice of the day. Not only were you all smart and inquisitive and friendly, but you were so damn happy. First of all, there is surely no company in the world where so many employees wear t-shirts with their company logo, which we took to be a sign of true pride (or perhaps simply a deep, deep discount). But the happiness shone through in a dozen other ways. It seems this is the by-product of doing interesting work with smart colleagues in beautiful environs, all with a profound sense of mission. (A $297 stock price probably doesn’t hurt, either.)

One person we talked with after our presentation was actually an old friend of Dubner’s, a writer named
Anya Kamenetz, who is the fiancee of Google employee. Dubner hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, and had no idea she was even in California. Even stranger, Levitt had seen her on PBS not long ago, just as the two of us were starting to do TV appearances, and called up Dubner to say, “I just saw this young woman named Anya on TV, and she was so good and natural at it that it made me realize that that’s how we should try to be on TV.” The only reason Levitt remembered her name is that Dubner’s daughter is also named Anya — which he (Dubner) chose in some part because Anya Kamenetz was such a good name model. So here, a few thousand miles and a few months away, all these strange random elements got tied up in a neat bow, on the campus of Google. Somehow it doesn’t seem as if it could have happened anywhere else.