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How “Don’t Be Evil” leads to Guantanamo Bay

By on February 15, 2010

Google Buzz is Google’s latest consumer misfire.

In its attempt to out-Facebook Facebook and out-Twitter Twitter, the company decided that every user of Gmail really wanted to have every frequent email correspondent treated as a social networking friend.

Many didn’t.

Whether it was because they hadn’t given their permission, or because they didn’t want to have their boyfriend connected with their abusive ex-husband, or simply because they already have enough social networks, they were unhappy.

But rather than focus on Buzz, I want to talk about how “Don’t Be Evil” has become Google’s greatest liability, and explain why Google’s belief in its own goodness is exactly the same attitude that led to Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding and extraordinary rendition.

But we’re the good guys

In the early days of a corporation, “Don’t Be Evil” is a good mantra. It is a guiding principle, a definition of company culture and such an aspirational goal that it can attract high-quality recruits.

But over time, it mutates. It ceases to be an ambition, and it becomes a belief. The risk becomes that Google doesn’t have to worry about “not being evil” any more, because it is Google. And everyone knows that Google isn’t evil.

From Do No Evil to Guantanamo Bay

Is George W. Bush evil? (Now there’s a question I’m not going to answer here). But did his focus on defeating al-Qaeda, whatever the cost, lead to a costly invasion of Iraq, a savage suspension of civil liberties in Guantanamo Bay and the world’s greatest democracy undertaking a systematic regime of torture? That seems less questionable.

Giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt, we need to ask how an honourable man (and you can say the same for David Miliband and the latest MI5 accusations) can lose sight of his moral compass?

The answer lies in cognitive dissonance – a pyschological term that explains how humans hate having two opposing views and expend extraordinary mental effort to reconcile these contradicting positions.

So people who get into fights don’t feel better for getting their rage out – they feel even more angry with the “victim”, who must have deserved the beating if a fine, upstanding person like the attacker needed to beat them.

Or politicians who fiddle their expenses can’t understand the outrage ordinary citizens feel against them. “But everyone’s doing it”. “It’s not as if we couldn’t earn twice as much in the City.” “Anyway, we have a very hard job, we deserve the rewards.”

Or a President becoming so convinced that he is fighting for all that is good, and true, and right, that the bad guys must be so evil that anything is justified in defeating them. Even if by that process, you lose part of what you were fighting for in the first place.

So how does this influence Google

Google now has the power and capabilities to be one of the most powerful privately-owned threats to civil liberties. The “Don’t Be Evil” mantra is not enough to stop that outcome.

Worse, “Don’t Be Evil” is the cause of the problem.

Say “Don’t Be Evil” often enough, and it becomes a truism: not a guiding principle to follow and consider. Anyone who works for Google *can’t* do evil, because Google *doesn’t* do evil. They’re the good guys.  And if Google can do no evil, and people don’t like what they do, it can’t be because Google has been evil (or intrusive, or monopolistic, or thoughtless, to use less pejorative terms), but because outsiders just don’t understand the greater good that Google is trying to achieve.

That cognitive dissonance is that same thought process that leads to Western governments ignoring the rules of war and ordinary people to commit atrocities throughout history.

And if it has become institutionally embedded into Google, we all ought to be very afraid.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: