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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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SO HOW CAN WE EXPLAIN Google's seemingly irreconcilable Africa and China strategies--one so morally wholesome, the other so full of ethical holes? One explanation, of course, is hypocrisy. Many critics, particularly those on the traditional left, argue that Page and Brin are capitalist hypocrites, no different from the robber barons of the 19th century, making an ill-gotten fortune out of China and then easing their consciences on meretricious humanitarian gestures in Africa. Neither Larry Page's humanitarian trips to Ethiopia nor the philanthropy of Google.org, critics argue, have any significance beyond the symbolic. As the neo-Marxist cultural critic Slavoj Zizek notes in a recent London Review of Books essay, the Google founders are "liberal communists" whose "frictionless capitalism" allows them to simultaneously flatten the world economy, make a fortune, and feel ethically good about themselves.

But Zizek's interpretation of Google's ethical hypocrisy falls into the classic Marxist trap of explaining human motivation purely in terms of material greed. Hypocrisy might be the right word to describe Google's brand of morality--but I would argue that this is a hypocrisy rooted in values, not economic self-interest. Google's moral code reflects the unconventional values of its founders. It represents the hypocrisy of authentic capitalism.

Much has been made of the Google dictum which states: "Our informal corporate motto is 'Don't be evil.'" But this Manichean distinction is beside the point. To the founders of Google, more important than being either good or evil is being true--true to oneself and true to one's principles. Google's moral code represents the capitalism of authenticity. It's what makes Google different.

Page and Brin's faith in themselves and in Google are absolute. They are authentic and they have transmitted their personal authenticity into their company. So if Google says something is good, like say, the importance of being part of the Internet in China, then it must be good. If Google says something is evil, like, say, the absence of the Internet in Africa, then it must be evil.

Google's authentic capitalism means that any moral argument is valid, provided that the Google guys believe it. Clive Johnson, in his New York Times magazine piece, puts it succinctly, describing Google's China policy as being defined by the company's "halcyon concept of itself":

The carrot was Google's halcyon concept of itself, the belief that merely by improving access to information in an authoritarian country, it would be doing good. Certainly, the company's officials figured, it could do better than the local Chinese firms, which acquiesce to the censorship regime with a shrug. Sure, Google would have to censor the most politically sensitive Web sites--religious groups, democracy groups, memorials of the Tiananmen Square massacre--along with pornography. But that was only a tiny percentage of what Chinese users search for on Google. Google could still improve Chinese citizens' ability to learn about AIDS, environmental problems, avian flu, world markets.

Johnson goes on to quote Brin on why Google decided to collude with the authorities in Beijing.

Revenue, Brin told me, wasn't a big part of the equation. He said he thought it would be years before Google would make much if any profit in China. In fact, he argued, going into China "wasn't as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information. And we decided in the end that we should make this compromise."

One could argue with Brin's logic, but not with his belief in the virtue of his own argument. The unconventional Brin has so much faith in his own moral judgment that he felt completely confident he could make the right ethical decision on China.

So, is Google good or is Google evil?

Perhaps the best answer is the Nietzschean idea of being beyond good and evil. The ethic of authenticity, known to philosophers like Charles Taylor as radical moral relativism, is the new new-thing in Silicon Valley. Google's moral self confidence, its eagerness to do its own thing, whether in Africa, China, or outer space, makes it a pioneer of authentic capitalism. Google's moral code, its sense of right and wrong, its definition of justice, is what it says it is.

Andrew Keen is a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur and digital media critic. His book, The Great Seduction, will be published by
Currency/Doubleday in 2007. He blogs at TheGreatSeduction.com and has recently launched aftertv.com, a podcast chat show about media, culture, and technology.