Alphabet is beyond good and evil: Why Google’s parent company ditched “don’t be evil”

Evil is a heavy word, laden with multitudes of moral and religious significance. It’s a concept that has been argued over for thousands of years, associated with the very worst that humans are able to do to each other. It has also been an important part of the bright, crayon-coloured façade of one of the most powerful entities in the modern world: Google. Its motto? Don’t be evil.

Or at least it used to be. Google’s transformation into one of a number of entities under the Alphabet parent company has brought with it an interesting semantic turn. While Google’s code of conduct retains the “don’t be evil” mantra, Alphabet has dropped the moral imperative, replacing it with a much looser phrasing: “Employees of Alphabet and its subsidiaries… should do the right thing – follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.”

A call against evil has been substituted with notions of law, honour and respect. This may sound like a minor change, but it’s significant in how it illustrates the cultural change in Google’s holding company. “Do the right thing” is a slippery command, free from the ugly associations that come with the idea of evil.google_android_lollipop_campus

In his excellent essay for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost asked the question: what does Google talk about when it talks about evil? When Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin used the term in their 2004 IPO letter, it was clarified by stating that Google was “a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains”.

What good and evil meant in this context wasn’t entirely clear, although it was seen as a jab at competitors that were exploiting users for advertising. From here it developed into an edict for engineers to overcome problems that may arise later down the line.

“Understood in the programmer’s sense, ‘evil’ practices are just counter-indicated ones,” said Bogost. “Things that might seem reasonable in the moment but which will create headaches down the line. This kind of evil is internally focused, selfish even: it’s perpetrated against the actor rather than the public.”

Beyond Good and Evil

I always imagined Google’s motto, “don’t be evil”, to be said by shareholders at important meetings as a smile curved around the lips. The outwardly straightforward phrasing perfectly encapsulates the keep-it-simple image perpetuated by the search-engine giant, but also obscures nuanced moral introspection. Play table tennis in the office. Sit on a bean bag. Don’t be evil.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Alphabet’s widening involvement in everything from targeted ads to military robotics strikes a peal of sinister new reverberations.

What began as a light-hearted dig at the lengthy codes of conduct of other companies, and grew as a useful internal shield against moral nuance, could easily become an albatross around the neck of a holding company that encompasses subsidiaries such as the life-extending research company Calico and the artificial-intelligence and robotics research of Google X. This isn’t to say that the actions of these companies are in any way evil, but that their areas of focus are subject to complex moral questions.

For Alphabet, “don’t be evil” may be seen as pinning too much to the mast. Better, Google may think, to quietly retire the motto and embrace something a little more relativist. “Follow the law” – i.e., follow our lawyers.

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