Do no evil: Google and the Year of the Monkey

The recent Chinese festivities celebrating the end of the year of the Monkey reminded me of Google (now Alphabet)...

fourmonkeys.jpg

According to the Chinese zodiac Google became a public company in the year of the Monkey, in August 2004.

In Western culture we are familiar with the story of the three monkeys who very wisely: see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. In some Asian cultures there is a fourth monkey: Do no evil.

"Do no evil" is often misquoted as Google's famous motto, which is actually: "Don't be evil" but it's essentially the same.

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In 2015, Google had tired of its responsibilities as the fourth monkey reorganized its business operations; renamed itself Alphabet, and abandoned the problematic old motto and replaced it with the more modern: "Do the right thing."

It's close enough to the old one that it's unlikely to confuse the ethics of the staff; plus, the new motto is sufficiently vague with a phrasing that provides endless relativistic wiggle room to answer any challenge.

An evil temptation...

I was never comfortable with Google's "Don't be Evil" motto because of the company's strategic importance to the Internet and to the economies of entire countries.

As Google grew in size I grew more worried about its "Don't be Evil" philosophy.

We have seen many times how the universe loves irony; and how it values thorny opportunities to pop our oversized hubris and sink our blowhard ambitions -- the bigger the better.

With a motto like "Don't be evil" there was a nightmare risk that Google would somehow end up being responsible for many imaginable and unimaginable evils. The hands of fate love such opportunities. Let us not lead them into temptation!

A less evil motto...

I once proposed a replacement motto for Google, with the aim of lowering the risks of attracting disastrous ironic consequences:

"Brush your teeth and get eight hours sleep."

If Google messes up what's the worst that can happen? It's a bit grumpy, falls asleep in meetings, and has to chew some minty gum. No harm done and it's temporary -- there's always a new day.

But with "Don't be evil" there's no end to the potential horrors from a universe highly motivated by ironic intervention. Google did the right thing to be rid of it.