Larry and Sergey: a valediction

Photographer: “How ’bout we do the shoot in a hot tub?”

Larry and Sergey: “Sure!”

Never such innocence again.

Can billionaires be tragic figures? Lear must have been worth a billion or two, in today’s dollars. And surely the family fortunes of Hamlet and Macbeth crossed the magical ten-figure line. I’d go so far as to suggest that, these days, you have to be a billionaire to be a tragic figure. The most the rest of us can aspire to is pathos, our woes memorialized by a Crying Face emoji.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin spent the first fifteen years of their careers building the greatest information network the world has ever known and the last five trying to escape it. Having made everything visible, they made themselves invisible. Larry has even managed to keep the names of his two kids secret, an act of paternal love that is also, given Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” an act of corporate treason.

Look at them in that hot tub. They’re as bubbly as the water. And that’s the way they appear in all the pictures of them that date back to the turn of the millennium. Larry and Sergey may well have been the last truly happy human beings on the planet. They were doing what they loved, and they were convinced that what they loved would redeem the world. That kind of happiness requires a combination of idealism and confidence that isn’t possible anymore. When, in 1965, an interviewer from Cahiers du Cinema pointed out to Jean-Luc Godard that “there is a good deal of blood” in his movie Pierrot le Fou, Godard replied, “Not blood, red.” What the cinema did to blood, the internet has done to happiness. It turned it into an image that is repeated endlessly on screens but no longer refers to anything real.

They were prophets, Larry and Sergey. When, in their famous 1998 grad-school paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced Google to the world, they warned that if the search engine were ever to leave the “academic realm” and become a business, it would be corrupted. It would become “a black art” and “be advertising oriented.” That’s exactly what happened — not just to Google but to the internet as a whole. The white-robed wizards of Silicon Valley now ply the black arts of algorithmic witchcraft for power and money. They wanted most of all to be Gandalf, but they became Saruman.

When, in May, Larry and Sergey were spotted at one of Google’s all-company TGIF meetings, the sighting was treated as a kind of religious vision. It was the first time the duo had bothered to show up at one of the gatherings all year. Their announcement last week that they’re resigning from their managerial roles at the company they founded was a formality. Larry and Sergey have been in ghost mode for a long time now — off the map, nontransparent, unspiderable. Search for them all you want. They’re not there.