Friday, January 15, 2010

THE BANALITY OF NOT BEING EVIL

 
By Philip J Cunningham

 
There’s something irremediably banal about Google’s corporate motto.  It’s hip, it’s hype and it’s hypocritical.
 
"Don't be evil" is a curiously negative construct; eschewing evil is not necessarily about doing good. In sum, a sophomoric yet shrewd manner of self-presentation that is not without its believers.
 
It speaks to the informal, idealistic ethos of a student-run Silicon Valley garage start-up, even though Google is now a multibillion-dollar entity with nearly 20,000 employees and computer links and arrays vast enough to map, copy and store billions and billions of private bits, day after day.
 
But pretending not to be a big company does not make Google a small company any more than their witty motto means they are doing good.
 
There are numerous shades of gray between not doing evil and evil, especially if one’s core business is information mining in service of advertising.
 
Neither the super suave Mad Men nor real life ad men pretend their business is about maintaining a high moral standard. Advertising, an ethically-challenged field of endeavor in the best of times, favors the big-wigs rich enough to afford its product, while seeking to indoctrinate the little guy, --capitalism’s answer to communist propaganda.
 
But Google’s difficulty in hewing to its motto extends beyond ad revenue to brave new frontiers of surveillance, digital profiling, and the questionable storage of vast information files on individuals that would be the envy of the old Stasi or KGB.
 
Where’s the "do no evil" when it comes to collecting data and profiteering off the private lives of others?
 
Google’s hunger for information is largely a one-way street; how much to we know about Google and its inner workings and its secret deals? How good is it to its word when it comes to not reading other people’s mail?
 
Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, a capitalist as aggressively focused on profit and market share as the legendary Mr. Potter played by John Barrymore in “It’s a Wonderful Life” has gone on record to criticize Google for scanning the content of user emails for the sake of advertising research.
 
Google CEO Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that private information is stored and might be shared with authorities, blithely absolving the company of responsibility by saying “we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act.”
 
In recent weeks, air travelers have been forced to consider, with an understandable mixture of alarm, resignation and dismay, the prospect of intrusive, full-body scans at airports.
 
Those in favor of scans that effectively strip away clothing assure us that the scanners won’t store, transmit or otherwise take pleasure in a geekish technology that renders real the unfulfilled promise of X-ray glasses of comic book yore.
 
Yet even with appropriate restraints in place, there’s something spooky about such intrusions upon one’s physical person.
 
Then again, in information terms, the internet-using public is scanned every day and is as good as naked, while aggregate pictures are being passed around for the profit of companies for whom “reading” private preferences is the coin of the realm. 
 
Internet users communing alone with their computers at all times of day and night leave a long, detailed electronic trail about their fears, fetishes, tastes, likes, dislikes, health concerns, political leanings, and pet peeves that open numerous windows of vulnerability, almost as if the internet were a trusted friend, which it decidedly is not.
 
We have to take it on faith that the gentlemen at Google don’t read other people’s mail, but even assuming, quite generously, that they generally don’t, who’s to say they or their corporate colleagues and successors won’t succumb to the temptation to gaze upon --in plain print, photo and video format, or in slyly telling algorithmically-generated profiles-- the bare body of the public.
 
Nothing better demonstrates the banality of claiming not to do evil than two math nerds who, without conspiracy or grand design, stumbled upon a formula for raking in billions of dollars in advertising revenue by offering free internet searches, email and other net services, that, once scanned, recorded, mined and interpreted, could be used to target commercial ads. 
 
Google founders Sergey Brin, and Larry Page may well be decent guys with no intent to do evil, but they created a Frankenstein. They are wealthy enough to leave the “dirty work” of mining information nuggets and handling the multi-tentacled information-gobbling monster to assistants, human and robotic.
 
The political commissars in China, masters of clumsier but equally intrusive methods of data-mining and information control, got a much-applauded comeuppance this month when Google, through a hip little manifesto effectively gave China the finger. 
 
Google’s allegation of governmental hacking, while serious, is not proven, and even if it were, it does not let Google off the hook for it’s initial willingness to enable censorship in the first place.
 
It is also possible that Google, which has not gobbled up as much market share in China as it has elsewhere, may be exhaling one last triumphant hurrah, using its banal motto as cover, before beating an inglorious retreat.
 
If so, it’s yet another example of American hubris and imperialistic hypocrisy, which says in effect, do as we say, not as we do.
 
 (published in the Bangkok Post)
 
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