Why “Don’t be Evil” is Wrong for Startups
Early in Google’s history, it established an informal corporate motto to govern the company as it took over the world. “Don’t Be Evil”. It feels like a startup because it’s direct, informal, and personal in a way that differentiated Google from the old guard of faceless corporations.
It’s also playful and engaging in a way that has helped the company establish trust with a whole generation of users and developers who depend on Google’s products to power their lives and businesses.
But the simple mantra evokes the condescending attitude that has become a major problem with tech giants like Google.
This stems from the technology industry’s obsession with the idea of simplicity. Early systems required huge amounts of technical knowledge and experience; new users had to put time and energy into learning products, technical baggage kept software from a wider audience, and complexity limited the growth of consumer products.
By simplifying, the products became more accessible.
But the simplicity of technology is an illusion. Google’s search algorithm is not simple, it’s incredibly complex and powerful. Thousands of brilliant engineers have come together to build a ridiculously complex system that delivers your results instantly. The process is messy and huge. Your results are straightforward and clean because Google has swallowed the complexity and hidden it from you, not because it’s gone.
That illusion is important. Offering products that are powerful but easy to use is a big step forward for consumers. It’s what we’re doing at Clef to make logging in easier, and the philosophy of simplicity is core to technological innovations throughout history.
But our quest for simple interfaces can also be paternalistic and harmful. When we wrap technical complexity, we’re reducing the amount of knowledge we require from our users. It’s easy for this to create a dangerous attitude of superiority or dominance — I’m smart and my users are dumb, so I have to hide my hard work from them.
That attitude can slip into the other things we do — like corporate mottos that ignore the incredible moral complexities that come with Google’s scale and instead offer a simple promise that we won’t be evil.
What is evil, Google?
Mostly, we like to imagine evil as one end of a spectrum. Over here on one side we have good, and then you go through a little grey zone before you get to the other side with evil. It’s a clean way to look at the world and it lets us decide whether something we’re doing is right or wrong.
But evil is a lot more complicated than a sliding scale. People hurt one another most when convinced they’re doing good. Whether it’s ethnic cleansing, violent jihad, or corporate greed, people commit the greatest crimes when they feel righteous and morally assured in their actions. Good is what motivates us to be our worst.
On the other hand, evil is always external. Evil is someone who disagrees with us and who we want to disown. Evil is foreign, it is our discompassion for an outsider.
Evil is a label we use to revoke our understanding of another person.
So what does a corporate mantra like “Don’t Be Evil” actually mean? It means don’t be an outsider, don’t alienate yourself from your customers. It means forgo belief and commit to nothing but the whims of your customers. It means swallow the complexity of your moral decisions and don’t use big words when you talk to customers. Act like everything is right or wrong and paternalistically explain why your decisions always fall into the right category.
“Don’t Be Evil” really means “Don’t Piss Off Your Customers”.
And look, that’s clearly a motto that has worked well for one of the largest technology companies in the world. It’s a powerful way to grow a business and a safe way to avoid responsibility for the world you’re tinkering with.
But there’s a lot more we can do. We can dedicate ourselves to getting better. If we want to improve the world around us, we have to commit to changing the way we see it. Biases and history have ingrained themselves in our skulls, but we can unseat them if we can first acknowledge that they’re still there today.
We can keep improving, but can never believe that we’ve finished, that we’re good, or even that we’re not evil.
I know that I am doing evil every day just by sitting and watching. I am gaining from the misfortunes of others just by living and breathing and eating and consuming. If there is evil in this world then we are all a part of it, and avoiding it or blaming someone else doesn’t help.
This is not a call to action. This is a call for introspection.
We can all be getting better a little bit at a time, but it means forgoing righteousness and allowing some uncertainty into your life.
I won’t promise not to be evil. I’ll look at how I was yesterday, who I was, and know that it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t right or golden, today I can be better. I need to be better.
Because evil isn’t an extreme, it’s a constant.
I’m working on a software company that I hope will have some impact on the world. I will not promise not to be evil. Instead our motto will look forward.
Do Better Today Than Yesterday
I promise to challenge not just the business model or the technology, but the methods and the morals on which we operate. We’ll start with the knowledge that we’re doing things wrong. We’ll keep working to find ways to challenge the past and improve the future. We won’t swallow our mistakes or simplify our decisions.
If we’re lucky, we’ll look back and cringe at the evil we did yesterday because we’re doing better today.
Originally published at brennenbyrne.com.