I admit that I have a specific overpriced caffeine favorite: grande nonfat 2 Equal latte. While standing in line waiting for the barista at your favorite java joint you can overhear a wide variety of conversations. Here’s a sampling from two teens.
“They’re so ubiquitous now,” says the first pair of skinny jeans.
“I don’t think that word means what you think it means,” says the second. “Are you saying everybody likes them? Nobody I know likes them — and never have.”
“No, and that makes my point.” exclaims the first…while channeling his inner Merriam-Webster. “Ubiquitous means that something is all over the place … everywhere — or at least it seems like it is. Whether you love or hate their music, you can’t get away from that group these days. … They’re like the Google of pop music.”
“Oh, I get it. Ubiquitous.”
3 Billion Served
Handling three billion searches per day, Google.com is the most popular search engine in the world. And when you include the dozens of other products Google Inc. offers users — email, cloud computing, productivity tools, maps, etc. — you begin to understand why the word “ubiquitous” can be illustratively defined with reference to this company.
As a result of its size, every Google tweak has big worldwide implications and, consequently, receives criticism or praise. Last week, Google announced it would begin using “user recommendations” without actually getting permission from the user. Your tweets proclaiming the joy of eating at a local pizzeria could show up in the browser of a complete stranger who Googles: “looking for good pizza in downtown Springfield.”
Using your words in such a manner is not illegal — read the fine writing in all those “I agree” boxes you check off without reading (which nobody reads).
Although not illegal, is such use ethical? And, what about all those other Google applications — like the one where Google planned on scanning in every page of every book ever published — is that ethical, even if doesn’t break copyright laws?
If you think that such questions of morality are only the concern of ethicists, theologians or corporate lawyers, then it may surprise you to learn that Google came up with a morally-loaded 3-word statement back in its 2004 IPO letter.
“Don’t Be Evil.”
Founding Google Inc. executives actually used those words privately much earlier than 2004. In the pioneering days of online search engines, the legal and ethical rules and mores were unestablished. When you searched for “best manicotti in New York,” the top returns may or may not have been unbiased, algorithm-driven results. A couple of restaurants may have paid the search engine for the right to be the top return — and there was no small-print word “Advertisement” which would accompany the result. Based on this, you’d grab a meal at a terrible restaurant which just happened to be search engine savvy with their advertisement dollars.
That would be just one example of practices Google Inc. desired to steer clear from in order to be both ethical and different. And for this, we can be thankful. As for the phrase itself, Paul Buchheit coined the term in more of a whimsical fashion. No academic philosophical discussion — more like a simple desire to avoid boilerplate corporate jingles. He says:
I believe that it was sometime in early 2000, and there was a meeting to decide on the company’s values. They invited a collection of people who had been there for a while. I had just come from Intel, so the whole thing with corporate values seemed a little bit funny to me. I was sitting there trying to think of something that would be really different and not one of these usual “strive for excellence” type of statements. I also wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out.
This is a far cry from the picture we imagine of Aristotle or John Stuart Mill penning ethical theories. It is inspired more by Dilbert than David Hume or the Decalogue.
So what prompted this blog post? Did Google Inc. do something “evil”? No, or yes…or maybe — I suppose it depends on who is running the algorithms that define the term “evil.” The definition seems to be a moving target with no clear objective foundation on which to stand.
Such is the point of an excellent article titled, “What is ‘Evil’ to Google?” — recently published by The Atlantic.
Author Ian Bogost writes:
It’s not that Google has announced its intention not to be vicious and failed to meet the bar. Nor is Google, Arendt-style, just manning its station, doing what’s expected. No, through its motto Google has effectively redefined evil as a matter of unserviceability in general, and unserviceability among corporatized information services in particular. As for virtue, it’s a non-issue: Google’s acts are by their very nature righteous, a consequence of Google having done them. The company doesn’t need to exercise any moral judgement other than whatever it will have done. The biggest risk—the greatest evil—lies in failing to engineer an effective implementation of its own vision. Don’t be evil is the Silicon Valley version of Be true to yourself. It is both tautology and narcissism.
In other words, Google Inc. can live righteously according to its code of conduct precisely because the code will evolve to align with the actions the company deems are best to take. Perhaps the “long-term” vs. “short-term” vision will guide them into making decisions that parallel objective ethical realities. If not, however, then begone with the objective approach!
In the end, this isn’t really about Google, for these types of corporate statements come and go. I’m not looking to hold their feet to a statement they made at some point in time — they may not even care to be defined by their past definitions anyway.
Think much broader. Move back to the “repurposed words” conversation we had last week (“Marry yourself?: What repurposed words mean“). Truly, we live in a culture where the norm and expectation is that words are fluid and open to pragmatic change. If a certain definition of a word works to accomplish your desired end, then that is what the word means. But if it loses its pragmatic usefulness, then change the meaning of the word.
The repurposing of words is … ubiquitous. The fluidity of “evil” in the manual of one, albeit very large, corporation is yet another reminder of this cultural trend.