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Google in the Garden
of Good and Evil

How the search-engine giant moved beyond mere morality.

10:00 AM, May 3, 2006 • By ANDREW KEEN
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IS GOOGLE GOOD OR EVIL? In Silicon Valley, Google's moral code is a contentious issue. To its local boosters, Google can do no ill; but to critics on both the left and the right, Google epitomizes all the worst hubris, hypocrisy, and greed of the dot.com era.

"Take their work in Africa," one idealistic entrepreneur, a Google booster, told me, at a recent technology summit. "Bank rolling the $100 laptop for African kids proves their commitment to human rights and universal justice."

"Google's China policy is much more revealing," counters a Google critic, an equally idealistic software engineer. "Google sold out to the communists. They couldn't care less about the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens."

Might Google be so unconventional as to exist outside traditional moral categories, to be simultaneously good and evil? On the Internet, anything is possible

THE MOUNTAIN VIEW-BASED Google is certainly an unusual company. Any search for Google's morality begins, naturally enough, at google.com--it's such an intelligent search engine that it knows itself. Entering the keywords "unconventional company" into google.com leads to a web of links about Google itself, all describing the Fortune 500 company as the most unconventional of American enterprises.

But artificial intelligence only goes so far. No Internet algorithm, even one authored by Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page, can explain the company's moral code. To answer this question, we must go offline, to Charles Taylor's 1991 study of unconventionality, The Ethics of Authenticity.

Taylor traces the modern idea of individual authenticity back to Rousseau's romantic theory of the self. Taylor says that this conception of the individual transforms truth into a subjective notion that is peculiar to each individual soul. Thus, an established moral code or social convention means nothing to each individual. Only the self, in all its authentic glory, can encode its own morality. As Taylor writes:

Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover.

Consequently, each unconventional soul becomes, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "enclosed in their own hearts." Originality replaces a common ethical code as the source of individual morality. The result is the countercultural ethic of "doing your own thing" in which everyone is free to pursue their own conscience.

This ethic of authenticity is the key to understanding Google and, as a bonus, gives us a sneak preview of the next big thing in the global economy: authentic capitalism.

TWO YEARS AGO, Google attached an open letter to its April 29, 2004 IPO filing. Authored by Sergei Brin and Larry Page and entitled "An Owners' Manual," it represented a confession of Google's core business and ethical principles. The letter began in a militantly authentic voice:

Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.

The Google guys, whose close partnership is rooted in their shared unwillingness to make ethical compromises, went on to promise investors that they would continue to do their own thing. Above all, that meant making money and "having a positive impact on the world."

Once authentic, always authentic. Two years after its unconventional IPO, Google continues to do its own thing. The denizens of the Googleplex continue to revolutionize the online search and advertising businesses. Google's shares now stand above $400, having more than quadrupled since the IPO. Profits are up, increasing 60 percent in the first quarter of 2006. Today, Google is increasingly perceived by both Wall Street and Silicon Valley as the next Microsoft.

But beyond its meteoric economic success, Google's unconventionality is as much ethical as operational. The company aggressively conforms to two laws, one economic, the other moral; laws that Max Weber would call the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of conviction. One the one hand, Google is a Wall Street paragon of economic profitability, responsibly returning profits for its investors quarter after quarter; on the other, Google is unashamedly committed to the public good, to improving the lives of as many people as possible, to being trustworthy and pursuing the public good.

THIS DUALITY can be seen in the company's strategies in China and Africa. In China, Google places profit squarely over morality; in Africa, the priorities are reversed.