When I first discovered Google, it was a revelation. I was using a combination of Alta Vista, Yahoo, Dog Pile and luck to find what I wanted and Google returned the right results super fast.
Fast forward to now and Google know more about me than my mother. I use Google Apps for jonstribling.info mail, Google AdWords, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Trends, Google Books and more.
That is a lotta Google!
A few years back, I started to get upset about the lack of choice in search engines. It’s not that Google do a bad job, they do an amazing job. It is just that as a consumer choice makes me feel better, it makes me feel in control, rather than as a passive victim.
Google are so good that it can seem that there is no viable choice in search. This is not good for consumers.
But hang on, I hear you say, what’s the problem? Google are cool.
Well they sure are. They even have a corporate motto, “Don’t be evil”. They couldn’t possibly be bad with that kind of positive “let’s do some good” attitude?
How can a corporation that is obliged to provide a return to shareholders and demonstrate continual (and impressive) growth effectively guarantee that they’re not being evil?
It sounds like a load of BS to me.
More importantly though, it also raises the hoary question: What is evil?
- Is censoring information about Tibet and Tianamin Square in China evil?
- Is the unauthorised scanning of books evil?
- Is the collection and analysis of users searching and browsing evil?
- Is having a monopoly evil?
So what is evil anyway?
Evil is a limit defined by culture. Evil is beyond that which we can comprehend and justify as part of a complex set of cultural practices and beliefs. Evil is not, in my view, an absolute measure. It is defined and understood through culture.
What is understood as evil in Afghanistan is quite different to how evil is understood in Australia or the US.
Some ethicists contend that this kind of relativist approach to ethics is plain wrong, that an absolute limit is required to be able to judge right from wrong and truly recognise evil. But this removes any cultural specificity from the equation.
How else can you explain suicide bombers?
The bomber thinks that killing themselves and hundreds or thousands of strangers is a sure fire way to enter heaven. Which brings us to the real reason that some folks believe in an absolute ethics and that is, god; sorry God. The god botherers are so desperate to believe in an absolute all-knowing, all-powerful entity that they reckon good and evil are absolute concepts.
If you don’t believe in god then you have to accept that each ethical limit is defined by a complex set of factors including culture.
So back to Google.
Is Google evil?
No, not when you stack it up against Nuclear and non-nuclear weapons manufacturers. Diamond miners exploiting poor Africans. The Indonesian government’s actions in West Paupa. Blackwater, the US contractor making bucketloads of cash from the war against terror. Dick Cheney and Hannah Montana.
Google are simply very successful at indexing, storing and analysing data. They do it better than most and have built one of the go-to sites on the Internet. By being successful Google have put themselves under the cultural microscope, so that every action, every success and every misstep is analysed and studied and criticised.
As a multi-national corporation, Google might do stupid, even evil things sometimes, like almost every multi-national corporation, including Greenpeace. This does not mean that Google, or Greenpeace, are being evil.
Selling my personal information to the CIA is evil.
And I don’t think they have done that.
Censoring information for a totalitarian regime is evil. And yes they have done that.
How I stopped worrying?
The great thing about the Internet and capitalism is that there is something great around the corner that will make Google look a little old fashioned.
In 2010 Google have been playing catch up to Bing, Wolfram Alpha, Twitter and Facebook.
Networked lifestreams are a huge threat to traditional search and the ad supported model and it is not obvious that Google know what to do.
Perhaps the threat is Bing, Wolfram Alpha, Twitter. But it’s more likely something we don’t know about yet. Something that is being built by a couple of super smart hard working PHD’s in their garage right now.
The point is that history tells is that nothing lasts forever.
And hopefully that includes my Google search history.