Loading icon

Buzzkill

Opinion | February 26, 2010

Evil is a simplistic concept that is rarely an effective descriptor for the world around us.  That is why children graduate from fairy tales and picture books to more mature literature, where there are no longer heroes and villains, but instead, there are characters with nuanced backgrounds and motivations. As Google, whose mantra proclaims, “Don’t be evil,” frenetically jumps from one cutting-edge project to the next while taking its place as a major actor on the international stage, it is going to have to grow up quickly and acknowledge that the world is not as black and white as it would like to believe.

Google has always branded itself as an exceptional tech company. Its sleek search engine distinguished it from the cluttered interfaces of competitors’, and Gmail’s thread organization revolutionized the way we think about email. Just as Mac personifies itself in commercials as the laidback hipster subtly mocking the stodgy PC, Google also seeks to project an anti-corporate ethos. Their corporate philosophy is, “You can make money without doing evil.” But can they?

Staying just ahead of the tech curve means staying true to the corporate mantra, and it isn’t always so easy. When Google Maps’ Street View first debuted, people were able to identify their cars and read their license plates, as well as those of people they knew, sometimes in compromising locations. Others recognized images of themselves or their friends. In at least one documented case, Google caught someone picking their nose. Shortly thereafter, Google introduced a form with which people could request that identifying features be pixelated.

Buzz, Google’s foray into social networking, came out last week, automatically enlisting all Gmail users’ most frequently used contacts as “followers.” I woke up one morning to find myself following 26 people and having 17 people following me, ranging from friends to bosses to randos from last semester’s study group. The ability to opt out was introduced after the fact. “The Big Money,” a blog at Slate, reported that one woman reacted to automatically following—and being followed by—her most frequently used contacts with an all -caps expletive for the Silicon Valley behemoth because her abusive ex-boyfriend had been made aware of her deliberately concealed whereabouts.

Like a hyperactive child, Google is in the race to be first. It releases the newest technology as fast as it can, knowing that it can deal with the messy details after the fact. It spurns uniform cubicles and dreary cafeterias for a whimsical workplace environment, including rooms dedicated to Legos, just as it spurns ad-ridden homepages for a clean one. It also spurns corporate social responsibility policies. For many companies, these documents can run as long as dozens of pages, but Google has no need, for it has three words: “Don’t be evil.” Yet in the real world there is no good and evil, just shades in between. For all its talk of corporate exceptionalism, from architecture to ethos, Google is ultimately beholden to its shareholders and its bottom line. They are subject to the wills of sovereign states as well, as its capitulation to Chinese demands for censorship makes clear.

Doing no evil is easier said than done. Three years before last week’s principled stand against Chinese censorship, CEO Eric Schmidt said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that complicity with Chinese censorship was a calculated decision. “We actually did an evil scale,” Schmidt said, which evidently tipped toward tolerating state-directed and then self-censorship for the greater (financial) good of maintaining operations in China. But is it possible to perform a linear evaluation of evil, especially when those making the judgment calls have a vested financial interest? With Google, in China and elsewhere, increasingly looking like a significant player on the world stage, is it possible to be a benign behemoth? And what about the questions raised by Buzz and Street View: Is it possible to encourage developers to push you to the absolute cutting edge of technology while still catering to non-savvy consumers who have better things to worry about? Is it possible to be the anti-corporate corporation and abide by a calling higher than the profit motive?

Google has long outgrown its old and facile mantra, “Don’t be evil.” There are no heroes and villains on the world stage, just self-interested actors, and Google is no exception. As it continues to gain influence, the tech monolith must abandon its childish fairy-tale claim of good triumphing over evil and acknowledge what it admitted three years ago: that there is a spectrum of evil, and it must decide where on that spectrum it will fall.