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February 1st, 2019
Once upon a time the direction ‘Don’t be Evil’ was a part of Google’s code of conduct. It was removed and replaced with a much more positive sounding dictate: “Do the right thing.”
While these might seem like synonymous statements, they are not and the important way in which they differ is that one is more about focus and the other is more about awareness.
The dictate: do the right thing. Is all about focusing on doing what you think is good.
This seems like a fairly innocuous strategy that can produce some good. The problem comes when we misidentify what is good. Anyone with even a modicum of circumspection can look back on some passage of their life and identify a train of actions that were undertaken because they were deemed of good worth, but in retrospect had disastrous effects because our idea of what was good was perhaps skewed or misguided.
Deeyah Kahn has made a couple documentaries that explore extreme differences between people in terms of identity, primarily with regards to religion and ideology. One of these documentaries entitled “Jihad: a story of others” has an extended interview with an individual who used to be part of a radical faction that took violent action against those deemed enemies. By the time of the filming and interview, this individual has completely changed. But what exactly in such an individual’s mental framework changes? Why would such a person take such an action in the first place?
For the simple and uncomplicated reason that such a course of action was deemed good.
The word good could not be more ambiguous. It’s as useless as the word natural, which means vastly different things to different people because of their differences. Just compare for a moment how the word ‘sky’ pretty much means the same thing to everyone. Few people look at the ground and claim it to be the sky.
But the word good when regarded across a spectrum of enemies flip-flops depending on which person or perspective we identify with. This is a very dangerous phenomenon because it enables people to undertake actions that are potentially counter-productive to our species in the name of what’s ‘good’.
The original dictate: don’t be Evil. Initiates a much more important perspective and process.
While doing the right thing or the good thing is all about focusing on actually doing something. Don’t be Evil is all about a larger awareness.
Don’t be evil is a larger ask. It includes the prescription to do the right thing, but it goes beyond that. It requires that someone also be aware of what the bad thing is. This is a far more difficult task. It requires imagining things from more points of view in order to root out possible negative ramifications that our actions might have.
Don’t be Evil screens for false positives. Do the right thing opens the door to any well-disguised evil.
This is Google’s mistake, and the mistake of every good intention that paved a way to hell.
To broaden this scope for a moment, we can ponder what this means for the individual. To do the right thing effectively means, keep your head down and keep working towards your goal. Don’t be evil on the other hand asks the individual to lift their eyes, look around and take stock of the whole situation. It asks the individual to imaginatively place themselves in the shoes of many others who might perceive or experience our actions as evil. The individual who is concerned with avoiding that evil action becomes mindful that such a possibility exists, and while this might slide towards over-caution if taken too far, in measured balance it creates of habit of checking the results of our actions more often to see what effect they’ve had. For even the most circumspect individual cannot predict the future, but one who is constantly aware of the larger situation and the effect actions are having is far less likely to pave a way to hell. Unlike regretful Oppenheimer who put a nose to the grindstone and kept going until the work couldn’t be undone.