Larry Page on technology, society and Burning Man

Google CEO Larry Page doesn’t give a lot of speeches, and his vocal cord problems are now well-known.  So it was both surprising and rare for him to take the stage at the company’s I/O software conference this week and hold forth for almost 45 minutes.

Speaking slowly and with a hoarse voice, Page offered a glimpse into the combination of starry-eyed idealism and hard-nosed pragmatism for which Google is known.

The 40-year-old CEO started off with a touching story about his own early exposure to technology, including a family trip to attend a robotics conference where his father got into an argument with organizers who didn’t want to let the underage Larry into the event.  He spoke about being excited about technology and gave his view of how it fits in human life:

“Technology should do the hard work so that people can get on with doing the things that make them happiest in life,” he said, adding: “I think we’re all here (at the conference) because we share a deep sense of optimism about the potential for technology to improve people’s lives.”

But he went on to complain about journalists who focus stories on how Google is competing with one rival tech company or another.  “I just don’t find that interesting,” he said. “Being negative isn’t how we make progress … The most important things are not zero sum.”

That didn’t stop Page from taking swipes at two of Google’s competitors.  He complained that Microsoft had taken advantage of Google software’s “interoperability” to incorporate Google’s messaging service into a new version of Microsoft’s email program, without allowing Google to do the reverse.  “We struggle with people like Microsoft,” he said, without mentioning that Google has also moved to block Microsoft from incorporating a YouTube app into its Windows phone, because Google says Microsoft won’t allow the app to carry Google’s ads.

Page also responded to a question about Google’s Android software and Oracle’s Java programming tools by noting that Oracle had sued Google over patent disputes, which forced Page to spend an uncomfortable day in court last year, defending his company’s business.

“Money is more important to them than having any kind of collaboration,” he said of Oracle on Wednesday. “I think we’ll get through that, just not in an ideal way.”

Perhaps the oddest moment in Page’s talk came when he spoke about the ways in which society and the law sometimes resist change and innovation.

“There are many, many exciting and important things we can do but we can’t do because they’re illegal or not allowed by regulations,” he said, adding that it might be good to designate an experimental zone reminiscent of the annual “Burning Man” art and technology festival where many social rules are suspended.  “As technologists we should have safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society and people without having to deploy into the normal world.  People who like those kind of things can go there and experiment.”

Page also spoke briefly about his decision to disclose the details of his vocal cord problem earlier in the week.  Conceding that he might have offered the information sooner – the condition forced Page to skip several public events with little explanation last summer – he went on to muse that many people probably don’t like to share details of their medical history because they worry it will make it difficult for them to obtain insurance.

“We should change the rules around insurance, so they have to insure people,” he said.

(Bay Area News Group photo by Karl Mondon)


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