On Google and Existential Evil

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

— John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton.

Lord Acton, a Catholic, was referring primarily to the Papacy—although his aphorism holds a kernel of truth for all areas of human endeavour.  Few men start out charting a course toward evil, but some who ascend the commanding heights are occasionally drawn to misdeeds through temptation and a fatal dearth of character.  Which is why this Economist article is so darned fascinating; it’s an irresistible peek behind the curtain of the do-gooding internet behemoth that has not yet passed its tenth year:

[Google], which trumpeted its corporate motto, “Don’t be evil”, before its stockmarket listing in 2004, considers itself a force for good in the world, even in defiance of commercial logic. Its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt, its chief executive, have said explicitly and repeatedly that their biggest motivation is not to maximise profits but to improve the world.

Such talk can make outsiders wince. Book and newspaper publishers, media companies such as Viacom, businesses which depend on Google’s search rankings and a lengthening queue of others are tired of moralising sermons. Some feel their own livelihoods are threatened and are suing Google. Even some employees (called “Googlers”) or former employees (“Xooglers”) are cynical. Google is “arrogant” because it feels “invincible”, says a Xoogler who left to run a start-up firm. The internal attitude towards customers, rivals and partners is “you can’t stop us” and “we will crush you”, he says. That “kinder, gentler” image is “mythology” and, he reckons, Google gets away with it only because of its impressively high share price.

— “Inside the Googleplex“, The Economist, August 30th, 2007.

I have a hefty bit of sketicism toward Google because it’s motto smells like a thousand warmed-over snake-oil sales pitches.  Perhaps Google’s senior brass didn’t notice, but the vast majority of people on planet Earth don’t actively attempt to do evil.  And those that do rationalise their misdeeds to the point that they don’t see evil—only necessity—in the evil that they do.  Ask any convict in the local correctional institution for clarification on that one, if you need to.

In the great Goog-mind I don’t think its shareholders, executives or employees believe they are doing evil.  Sure, the company has entered a gentle embrace with latter-day totalitarian fascists, and collects and centralises all manner of personal information about its users, but if anyone working there thought they were actively doing harm to the world, they’d probably get out.  Are employees objective enough to decide whether their enterprise is evil or not?  And while Googlers may not be doing harm to the world, they’re certainly not doing any favours for each other.

Google tends to win talent wars because its brand is sexier and its perks are fantastically lavish. Googlers commute on discreet shuttle buses (equipped with wireless broadband and running on biodiesel, naturally) to and from the head office, or “Googleplex”, which is a photogenic playground of lava lamps, volleyball courts, swimming pools, free and good restaurants, massage rooms and so forth.

Yet for some on the inside, it can look different. One former executive, now suing Google over her treatment, says that the firm’s personnel department is “collapsing” and that “absolute chaos” reigns. When she was hired, nobody knew when or where she was supposed to work, and the balloons that all Nooglers [new employees] get delivered to their desks ended up God knows where. She started receiving detailed e-mails “enforcing” Google’s outward informality by reminding her that high heels and jewellery were inappropriate. Before the corporate ski trip, it was explained that “if you wear fur, they will kill you.”

That strikes a chord with me because I have worked that kind of environment before.  Some companies have a ludicrously rigid corporate culture.  You’re required to attend “leisure” events after hours.  Everyone religiously observes major charity drives, nobody wants to be the guy who refuses to cough up in front of the boss.  They aggressively enforce the company dress code—whether that’s suits and ties or jeans and t-shirts.  Yes, Virginia, overbearingly casual work environments exist; ask me to tell you about that one, sometime.  Anyone who deviates from the norm gets a million friendly but highly annoying reminders that they’re stepped outside the zone of conformity.  Give me a freakin’ break.  We don’t all enjoy the same pastimes, social events and wardrobe as everyone else.

Another Xoogler, who held a senior position, says that by trying to create a “Utopia” of untrammelled creativity, Google ended up with “dystopia”. As is its wont, Google has composed a rigorous algorithmic approach to hiring, based on grade-point averages, college rankings and endless logic puzzles on whiteboards. This “genetic engineering of their workforce,” he says, means that “everybody there is a rocket scientist, so everybody is also insecure” and the back-stabbing and politics are reminiscent of an average university’s English department.

So, backroom Google is a fetid swamp of office politicking and treachery.  Does that affect the output a little?  You’d think so, but it’s also entirely possible for you to be a total dick to your neighbour and still crank out high-quality work at the office, right?  If the history of human civilisation teaches us anything, it’s that human beings can be complete assholes to one another, and still manage to achieve great things that are objectively good.  But usually, at some point all that backstabbing starts to take a toll on its practitioners, and then the edifice crumbles.

The reality of human existence is that we will all commit evil acts on a regular basis, even if we rationalise it away as something necessary and unavoidable.  Human nature and mercurial human emotions simply guarantee it.  It seems to me that eventually a rather more visible act of evil will be committed by a person with significant power and influence, even in a company that professes to do none.

Maybe Google’s new motto ought to be “Don’t be evil when the shareholders can see you.”

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2 Responses
  1. Alan says:

    I own one share and get a semi-pathetic cheque from Lord Goog. I say “do only evil that makes me happy.”

  2. Nathan B. says:

    “…overbearingly casual work environments exist”–that one cracked me up. I actually like dressing formally.