Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Do No Evil, Google And The Year Of The Monkey...

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 31, 2017

Fourmonkeys

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. 

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."

[I predicted this in 2009: “Google quietly drops “Don’t be evil”motto”]

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

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