Google's suburban sprawl

Google's announcement today of a massive campus expansion was inevitable. Having taken over every last scrap of office park around it not occupied by neighbor Intuit, Google is expanding the Mountain View Googleplex to the west — and, more controversially, to the east, on land owned but poorly used by Nasa. Ignore the happy talk about Google and Nasa's scientific partnerships; those are an obvious fig leaf to cover the use of public land by a private entity. (Let's not even get started on Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt's sweetheart deal to park their party plane on Nasa grounds.) Google has grown to be a powerful employer in the Bay Area, and its wealthy executives donate freely to local politicians, so we should hardly expect the powers that be to stop it. What's good for Google is good for America, or so we'll be told.

What ought to stop this search-engine sprawl: Googlers' own consciences, if they are still guided by the "Don't be evil" slogan. Developing new offices on the very fringe of Bay Area's suburbs, on areas that used to be wetlands, or neighbor the fragile ecosystems, is unconscionable. Despite the perk of free shuttle buses, most Googlers still drive carbon-emitting cars to work.

The Bay Area's infrastructure allowed Google to blossom. The region has asked far too little of it in return. Google should commit now to funding the extension of Santa Clara County's light-rail system through its new campus and its old one. It should also expand in cities like San Francisco, already served by public transit, rather than shuttle its workers 40 miles each way. Eliminating energy expended in transportation is far more productive than finding clever ways to achieve marginal efficiencies.

The environmental impact is one thing. But the business impact is another. Google's executives should also ask themselves: What kind of company do they want to be? Do they want to remain cloistered from the world, or engaged in it? Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg chose to place his company in downtown Palo Alto, with all the difficulties that poses; his choice meant that his workers rub shoulders daily with Stanford students, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists — and, shockingly, people not involved in the tech industry. On the Googleplex, Googlers live in a world of sameness, with people who never challenge their technology-über-alles worldview.

Larry and Sergey have built themselves a candy-colored bubble on the outskirts of Mountain View. By inflating it, as they've chosen to do, they only increase the risk that a competitor more in touch with the real world will pop it.