Facebook’s “memories” feature recently reminded me of the tenth anniversary of a small personal milestone I hadn’t thought much about in recent years. The September 30, 2013 issue of TIME cover-featured an article about Google’s launch of a subsidiary called Calico, dedicated to researching the human aging process and finding ways to slow its detrimental aspects. The story was an exclusive I’d reeled in and cowritten, and its publication resulted in my byline appearing on TIME‘s cover for the first and last time. (A couple of years before, my Steve Jobs obituary was certainly a critical element of the special issue marking his death, but Jobs’ name was, fittingly, the only one on the cover.)
We had to turn the Google story around quickly, so TIME decided to have me collaborate with Lev Grossman, a fine writer who had also done a polish on my Jobs obit when it had to be rushed into print. I did all the interviews at Google’s Mountain View campus and wrote the majority of the manuscript, but the first, most Calico-centric chunk is Lev’s. I was delighted with how he tackled it, and the results are seamless enough that I’m not positive where his work ends and mine begins.
The thing that made the Calico news TIME cover story fodder was that I’d secured an interview with Google’s cofounder and then-CEO Larry Page. He did not relish being the company’s public face and engaged with the media less and less over time: If I recall correctly, I am the second-to-last print journalist he’s granted face time for an article. Our article was really a look at Page’s “moonshot” strategy for new Google initiatives—we wanted to shoot a photo of him and Art Levinson, Calico’s CEO, for the cover. But my Google contacts couldn’t have been clearer that there was no way Page would consent to posing for us.
Now, if you have any background at all in the magazine business, you know that authors rarely get to write their own headlines. Cover lines are an even loftier pursuit: Normally, the writer might not even see them pre-publication, let alone have any say. So I’m shocked to recall that one of my editors did send me a PDF of the draft cover and asked what I thought about it. Here, you can take a look for yourself:
I really didn’t like any aspect of the cover (except for my name being on it). For one thing, we had used an out-of-date version of the Google logo, with a gaudy drop shadow they’d recently eliminated. But the big problem was that it oversold Google’s aspirations and our coverage of them inside the issue.
“I don’t like it—at least not the part about curing aging,” I wrote back. “They’ve never claimed they’re trying to do that. But this [is] truly above my pay grade.” Lev also pushed back politely. I don’t remember why I didn’t explicitly object to the part about solving death—maybe because a battle over a secondary line seemed more winnable than one that would have required a wholesale redesign of the cover.
Anyhow, when the issue shipped to the printer, the lines had been amended to tone down the hype. I was relieved, and surprised that my opinion carried any sway at all.
When our story came out, it made a decent-sized splash. It also got mocked some on Twitter and showed up on The Daily Show. We were probably asking for it with that cover. Or at least I think we might have left ourselves less susceptible to being snarked at if the cover had used the same headline the story carried inside: “The Audacity of Google.” Or maybe even the online headline, “Google vs. Death.”
Then again, a book that was severely critical of Tim Cook’s stewardship of Apple featured our Google story in its conclusion—the point being that it was Google, not Apple, that was taking on the world’s most serious problems.
Today, “Can Google Solve Death?” probably wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the 100 most notable TIME covers. I hope it also wouldn’t appear too high on any list of the silliest ones. But it is sort of floating out there as a low-temperature meme and continues to pop up here and there in the public consciousness, for better or worse.
Words cannot describe how bad Time’s covers were in 2013. pic.twitter.com/lweg2eZxM5
— Aidan Smith (@aidan_smx) February 5, 2021
I will always take pleasure in the memories I accumulated working on this story. Some of them I will save for another time. But I got to play emissary between Google and TIME bigwigs, which is more challenging than it sounds, since Silicon Valley and New York media are like two different solar systems. I got to talk to fascinating people like Astro Teller. I got chewed out by a passing random Googler after I got on one of the company’s bikes (at my PR handler’s request), which almost felt like an honor. And I had to remove my shoes to conduct an interview with a Google employee over sushi at an on-campus Japanese restaurant with an amazingly over-the-top Astro Boy theme.
Most of all, I’ll remember interviewing Larry Page after spending some weeks being told that he hated being interviewed and might suddenly stop responding or even suddenly walk out mid-conversation. He not only stayed in his seat but was interesting and engaging, and if he despised the whole experience, he did a good job of hiding it. He didn’t even blink when I asked him about the then-recent Edward Snowden revelations—a topic of conversation that Google PR had made a point of saying they hoped I wouldn’t bring up.
As for the story itself, I don’t feel an urge to disown any aspect of it. Calico is still extant, still run by Art Levinson, and doing serious research. Our reporting foreshadowed the restructuring of Google into Alphabet that happened a couple of years later: I even used a quote that hadn’t ended up in the TIME piece in a 2016 Fast Company cover story on Page and Alphabet. And another Alphabet arm, Google DeepMind, has made some research breakthroughs with potentially transformative implications for human health.
“In some industries, it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real,” Page told me. “Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.” It seems entirely possible that Alphabet/Google will still be plugging away at this really, really important thing 10 years from now. At the very least, it’s still too early to declare it to have been an embarrassing bust that never led anywhere.