Technology

Google's Larry Page, Hushed: Bug or Feature?


Google CEO Larry Page in 2012

Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Google CEO Larry Page in 2012

Yesterday was a doozie for celebrities and their personal medical histories. First up was Angelina Jolie, who explained in a bold op-ed for the New York Times,My Medical Choice,” why she elected to have double-mastectomy surgery. Then, a few hours later, Google’s co-founder and chief executive, Larry Page, took to Google+ to explain what had happened to his voice. His post wasn’t nearly as profound as Jolie’s—his condition is rare, and it’s rarely life-threatening—and it was far less of a rallying cry. Even so, it was potentially sensational stuff given that his health is material to a $300 billion public company, and people in Silicon Valley still talk about what they didn’t know about the severity of Steve Jobs’s cancer.

In the post, Page, 40, said some nerve damage had rendered his left vocal cord paralyzed. The sound needed for human speech is created by two cords meeting and vibrating against each other; when one doesn’t stretch across the windpipe to make contact, or is stiff, you sound breathy, washed out. He lost the use of the first cord 14 years ago after a bad cold. Then, last year, he endured a similar illness that seemed to threaten his other, good cord—and that’s why Google (GOOG) Chairman Eric Schmidt announced that Page wouldn’t be coming to several company events.

In the months since, he has recovered, Page writes, and is able to speak fine, just in a far softer way. The condition, he says, does not interfere with his running Google, nor does a possibly related thyroid condition. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, says Page, told him that “I’m probably a better CEO because I choose my words more carefully.”

I have my own prejudice for believing that Brin is on to something: I’ve had a paralyzed vocal cord for 35 years.

Certainly there are some disadvantages to having a paralyzed cord. Your voice tires more rapidly. Your vocal strength varies more from one day to the next. In loud rooms or bars, you are likely to spray it when you say it, and not everyone welcomes your spoken mist.

You’re busted immediately when attempting a prank call. You need extra patience for turning down—or indulging—requests for Godfather and Clint Eastwood impersonations. Anonymity is out the window the moment you open your mouth (although in the San Francisco Bay Area, Page probably hasn’t been able to pass unnoticed for years).

One of the greatest frustrations of a hushed, raspy voice, however, could serve Page very well. When you have, literally, half a voice, “Can you hear me now?” is another circle of hell deeper than it already is for other cell phone users. Page, whose Google bought Motorola so it could make its own smartphones, is in a position to do something about cell reception and clarity—something millions, and not only those of us who sound like we drank lye as kids, would greatly appreciate. Maybe more, even, than that first uncluttered Google search window.

It must be said, too, that there are some distinct upsides to speaking softly. There’s no end of excellent soup recipes, for instance, from sympathetic strangers, and the occasional bracing 1940s Hollywood slap from a lass who thinks you’re getting fresh when you lean in to be heard at a party. If it’s easier for blowhards to talk over you, it’s more often the case that people stop to really listen, E.F. Hutton-style, to what you have to say. Good teachers use this trick often—speaking in a whisper so kids quiet down and pay attention. Also, because talking at length is a strain, you spend more time listening—rarely a bad thing for an executive, especially one at a company that’s a magnet for talent.

Perhaps the greatest advantage Page can gain from his diminished voice is what he started when he posted yesterday. At last glance, his Google+ post has elicited 520 comments and 2,222 pluses (Google+ likes). He used the post to promote a survey (which I took) and to announce his donation to the Voice Health Institute in Boston. The survey gathers info from those with at least one paralyzed cord so the Institute can compare symptoms, possible contributing factors, or even underappreciated causes. Page has been active on Google+ since it was launched in 2011, but his posts have tended to be company news, updates from conferences, generic bullishness (“I’m excited about Google and Malaysia”). With his post about his voice, he is not only clearing the air about his health, but engaging with social media on a personal level—and with a sense of non-Google mission. The effort could very well make him a more versed, and more conscientious, director of a company that can seem to know too much about all of us.

When it was determined that I had a paralyzed cord, I was 11 and had recently moved to Palo Alto, Calif. Like Page, I never got a final, definitive answer on why it happened—probably a virus, the docs said, that came and went. Page says people have made fun of his voice in recent years. Some kids thoughts I sounded funny, too. (Although both of us, I’d aver, have our nerd-dom, as much or more than our voices, to blame for any taunts that stung.)

In the absence of a clear answer, some suggested that the cause of my vocal paralysis was psychosomatic. Others prescribed various therapies, such as reflexology. There is a nerve between your big toe and index toe, apparently, that corresponds to the facial and vocal nerves. Pressing there expertly and repeatedly, I was assured, could restore function to my down cord. The one time I consented to this (hey, when in California …), I rediscovered the ability to yelp in agony, but that higher pitch was short-lived. Because I was otherwise healthy, I was a source of fascination for neurologists and reconstructive surgeons, and because of his celebrity, Page, too, will have to beware of medical favors and agenda.

Far greater a concern than his volume or rasp, of course, is if Page’s vocal paralysis impaired his breathing. Page touched on this in his post, too, saying he couldn’t breathe as freely, but that his slightly pinched windpipe hasn’t affected his kite-surfing stamina. Unless he suffers an undetected, underlying disease, this detail, above all, suggests he’s going to be fine. For a number of years, ear, nose & throat specialists recommended I undergo neck surgery—to place a piece of triangular plastic in my larnyx that would move the stuck cord over so it could make fuller contact with my functioning one. Only problem: It would constrict my air intake. Did the surgeons know anyone who had this surgery done who’d been to high altitudes? No, not a one. Could they tell me if I’d be able to breathe in the thinner air atop, say, Denali (Mt. McKinley)? No, they couldn’t. I passed on the procedure because a strong voice wasn’t worth giving up my alpine delusions of grandeur.

Wieners_190
Wieners (@bradwieners) is an executive editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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