Evil, Search, and the Real World

March 27, 2012

I am not into theodicy, and I surmise the author of “Why “Don’t Be Evil” Is Evil, and Why Google Isn’t So Bad” is possibly less fascinated than I. I won’t say “informed” because after my year in the Jesuit strong hold of Duquesne University, I appreciate “evil.” I also am not going into poetry mode and drag in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained.” The Puritan dude had a Googley amanuensis who knocked out a killer poem with the fantastic peach metaphor. But let’s put John Milton, Andrew Marvell, and epistemology aside.

Let’s consider this passage by a writer more capable, in my opinion, than either Milton or Marvell when it comes to explicating evil’s cone of connotation:

I’m not convinced by Honan’s larger argument that Google’s recent actions should earn it our deep distrust. That’s mainly because nothing that Google has done is really so bad when compared to others in the tech industry. I’ve gone on record as hating Search Plus Your World. But I also hate the iOS App Store’s capricious, unfriendly restrictions, the ridiculous way that Apple went after rival advertising networks, the whole stupid business about in-app purchases, and the fact that I have to jump through hoops to use Google Voice on my iPhone. Similarly, I threw a tantrum when Facebook declared its social network to be a roach motel for your social graph—Mark Zuckerberg will let you import your contacts from Gmail, but don’t bother trying to get your contacts out. (And let’s all forget Beacon, shall we?) Meanwhile, how about the time Amazon deleted 1984 from people’s Kindles? And when I search for an iPad case on Amazon, why does Amazon show me a big ad for its Kindle app—how is that a relevant shopping result?

In other words Honan might be right that Google has violated its own definition of evil, but doesn’t it matter that every one of its rivals also routinely violates Google’s definition of evil? Wouldn’t that suggest that it’s the definition of “evil” that needs updating, rather than Google’s own behavior, which seems perfectly in line with that of its rivals? If you’re going to knock Google for its ethics, you’d have a hard time conducting transactions with any tech entity other than Wikipedia and Craigslist. You’d have an especially hard time explaining people’s crazy love for Apple.

The real problem that Honan has with Google isn’t that it has started to do stuff that bothers its users. It’s that Google has started to do stuff that bothers users in a way we aren’t used to—in a way that Don’t Be Evil falsely suggested it was above doing. By never claiming to be above evil, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are free to act like normal companies whose efforts to optimize their own self-interest don’t arouse much suspicion. We expect Apple to play rough with others; we’d be surprised if it didn’t. But we don’t expect sharp elbows from Google. And now that it’s acting in new ways, we don’t know what to expect at all.

The Honan reference points to a essay called “The Case against Google.” I have put in bold face the words and phrases which interested me in the response to the chap named Honan. I don’t pretend to have the insight nor the perspective of these two commentators and their respective publications. I almost used my personal shorthand and inserted “poobah, failed Web master, or former “real” journalist, but I did not. Gadget analysts and contributors to a start up root system do not fit into my personal controlled vocabulary. I will have to do something about that some day soon, maybe.

Let me hold forth on the four bold faced items in the quoted segment:

First, the notion of determining evil by comparing one company’s actions to another group of companies is interesting. The technology industry warranted an entire book by Jacques Ellul. Although Ellul had a passing familiarity with evil, he tackled the technology industry from the angle that technologists solve problems with technology. As there is more technology, there are more problems to solve. Technology does not seem to be in remediate mode. Thus, for an approach which a learned observer like Ellul was pushing the pedal to metal in the race to Armageddon, I think Ellul is spot on. As a consequence, evil in the context of creating more and more problems which exacerbate a  number of life conditions does not make me rest easy. The comparison does not work for me, but it may work just fine for you, gentle reader. Let’s try that argument when your progeny commit an “evil” act and respond, “But I did not kill anyone on the drive home like Trent did. I had less to drink at Amy’s sweet 16 party and anyone else. Don’t be mad at me. Don’t ground me. That’s not fair.”

Second, yep, I agree. Let’s do the health care thing and update the definition of evil. After all, everyone knows that “meaningful use” means electronic medical records, right? Redefining or the use of invented words to connote one thing yet main, in actual practice, quite another. Yes, that works quite well, and I will leave it to you to reflect on some of the marketing concepts which make figuring out what a technology product or service does quite challenging.

Third, the idea that Wikipedia and Craigslist are different from other technology companies is a method of argument that does not convince me. I recall reading that Wikipedia’s method permitted false entries. Someone in Kentucky actually accomplished this rare feat. I am certain the messages about unsubstantiated information in Wikipedia are little more than advisories on a tiny fraction of the information in the crowd sourced encyclopedia. I think it is admirable that some of my colleagues believe that Wikipedia put the loaded gun in Encyclopedia Britannica’s capable hands. I can imagine the verbal support for killing its untenable print product. Craigslist is fascinating as well. There was an spat with eBay, which was little more than a misunderstanding. Chatter about adult information and squelching of metasearch over listing is just that, chatter. No evil, just examples of prudent technology behavior and, therefore, appropriate for use as a way to measure evil of other outfits. I like that. No, I won’t give an example ask you, gentle reader, to imagine such behavior by one of your children or possibly by one of your parents. Unthinkable.

Finally, we come to the notion of “expecting.” Now the world has taught countries that unexpected events are routine. The companies which I admire fire employees who expected to float toward retirement without a pimple on their smooth, wrinkle free foreheads. In a world with unknown interdependencies, the unexpected is the norm. Whether it is bank failures or clueless students signing up for student loans, the unexpected strikes the uninformed. My hunch is that those with technological savvy know more about protecting themselves. Caveat emptor: The motto, in my book, whether I sign up for an exercise club or a free online service.

To wrap up, epistemology, eschatology, and heuristics are well served by a close analysis of the meaning of Google’s actions, the writings of experts, and a search for relevant information on a free Web search system. Information, like human action, wants to be free. Ethics, honor, integrity—redefine them. Well, let the experts redefine them by word and deed.

Stephen E Arnold, March 27, 2012

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3 Responses to “Evil, Search, and the Real World”

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