One of the best words we’ve inherited from the ancient Greeks is hubris (ὕβρις), defined on Wikipedia as “overweening pride, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution or nemesis”. Homer used hubris to drive the plots (and moral lessons) of both of his famous epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Hubris is, of course, a disease that afflicts winners, and it’s hard to pick a stronger winner in today’s online world than Google. Surely Google is the closest thing the web has to an Achilles or Ulysses. But hopefully Google’s legions of computer science PhDs remember a little bit of the Homer they were hopefully subjected to in high school or college.
Since that was probably a while ago, even for Google’s youthful employees (LinkedIn reports a median age of 29), here are two modern-day examples of hubris.
“One way of doing enterprise search would be to start something in 2001 that didn’t work. You could then do a complete overhaul in 2003, which also didn’t work. In 2007, you could launch a rip-and-replace system and then … you could acquire a large, random, non-integrated system.”
“I’m not going to name any specific company,” he quipped.
And, just a few days ago, Google’s senior manager of engineering and architecture punctuated a panel discussion at the Structure 09 conference–where he was sharing a stage with a counterpart from Microsoft–with the punchline “If you Bing for it, you can find it.” [CORRECTION: PLEASE READ "An Apology to Vijay Gill"]
There’s no question that Google is trouncing Microsoft in the online world. But that’s no reason to be catty. Indeed, Microsoft has paid dearly for its past hubris, so it’s not like Google needs to look back to Homer for history lessons. As Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps, instead of worrying so much about how to keep up with the Twjoneses on real-time search, Googlers ought to take a moment to reflect on the information they’ve already indexed.