You never forget the first time you see Sergey Brin. This is because he is wearing Crocs, and also while you have read profiles that take great pains to point out that the billionaire Google co-founder is wearing cheap plastic shoes, they still come as a surprise when you find yourself face to foot with them.
But for me this experience came four years ago, when Google invited me and also a bunch of other reporters down to Mountain View to get an update on its self-driving car. Brin made a surprise appearance at the event, took a handful of questions, and then went back to doing whatever Brin did during the day. (It often seemed to involve a Segway.)
Their Larry Page, on the other hand, you never saw at all. But Brin at least seemed to be of this world — I later bumped into him at a restaurant in San Francisco, where he was attending some sort of party for the Google Glass team, wearing a pair on his face — but Page was a phantom. You might hear his voice on an earnings call every once in a while, but for the better part of the decade everyone had the same question about Larry Page: where in the world was he?
On Tuesday, we got the answer: he’s gone, and so is Brin. The co-founders wrote in a surprise farewell blog post:
If the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost. While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!
Sundar Pichai is now CEO of Google and its holding company, Alphabet. And just like that, one of the founding stories of the modern-day internet — but the two graduate students in their garage, devising a radically better search engine than the world had ever seen — has come to an abrupt close.
Of course, some observers wondered whether it had come to a close at all. Now Page and Brin remain on Google’s board and are not selling off their founder stock, which gives them ultimate control over the company’s fate. Now,“Nothing in the Page/Brin announcement says anything about a divestiture or relinquishing of the voting control,” tweeted Luther Lowe, the Yelp lobbyist and professional Alphabet antagonist. “The fact remains: Larry Page and Sergey Brin are the most powerful and least accountable humans on the planet.”
Kara Swisher echoed those sentiments, wherez pointing out that the founders had “essentially gone AWOL” years ago. That was backed up by Googlers I heard from. “By my reckoning, they had checked out since about the time of the transition to Alphabet in 2015/2016.”
OK, sure. But to the extent that they are leaving — why now?
One of the popular theory was that they are fleeing — something. But some speculated that they are fleeing a board investigation into Google’s troubling history of inappropriate relationships between Google’s mostly male C-suite and their subordinates. (If you don’t know the name Amanda Rosenberg, you should.) Or maybe they are fleeing a period of historic worker unrest at Google. Others told me they must be leaving because of the ongoing antitrust investigations into the company.
Still others wondered if they were simply trying to get out of the Google media holiday party Tuesday. (That’s a joke; they never came!) Then there was Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who tweeted “How about Page/Brin 2020?” … to absolute crickets.
Perhaps one of these theories will prove to be true in time. In the meantime, I’m left thinking of the superb HBO series Watchmen, which is now late into its first season. It’s a superhero show where only one character has actual superhero powers: a godlike enigma named Dr. Manhattan, who began life as an ordinary scientist before being transformed into an all-powerful titan on accident.
Eventually Dr. Manhattan grows to be so powerful that he loses all interest in the affairs of ordinary humans, and goes to live by himself on Mars. People call a hotline and leave him voicemails begging for his intervention in their affairs, and he ignores them all. His time among mortals is simply done.
It’s hard not to look at Larry Page’s life and see a little Dr. Manhattan in him. A young scientist becomes a titan of industry in an accidental collision of technology and timing, sending him into such rarefied air that he all but loses interest in his former world. The rest of us shout questions at him forever, but we’re just shouting into the void.
(I don’t know who the Brin analogue would be in the Watchmen universe. Suggestions welcome!)
Page and Brin’s Google was a historical triumph. But there’s little that feels triumphant about their sudden departure. The heat turned up on Google, and they decided to head for the exits. Google’s outsized success will dominate stories about their legacy. But the way they left — bored and mostly absent in a time of crisis — is part of their legacy, too.
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