“Don’t Be Evil.”
If you recognize this as Google’s former corporate motto, you probably regard it as a broken promise. But arriving too quickly at this judgment misses the lesson of the journey. It may be true that we now live in a tech dystopia created at least in part by those who once proclaimed, “Don’t Be Evil.” But in the beginning, that motto contained a magnetic True North that once meant something, that still means something, something that is awaiting our rediscovery.
So before memorializing “Don’t Be Evil” as a broken promise, we must remember what it once meant.
We have to remember the time before the first widespread criticism of this mantra, before the semantic noodlers complained that it is impossible to define what “evil” means. See, the thing is, before this criticism was widely shared, it wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t relevant because the real audience for “Don’t Be Evil” already knew what the phrase was supposed to mean.
The real audience was undoubtedly the employees of Google at the turn of the millennium, when either Buchheit or Patel (depending on the storyteller) first proposed this as the company’s motto. Google had fewer than 250 employees at the time. “Don’t Be Evil” was a phrase that was easily understood by not only those 250 employees, but also by all of the company’s potential employee base. Yep, I’m claiming that every person who had the qualifications to be hireable by Google at that time (1999-2001) would easily understand the basic meaning of Don’t Be Evil.
See, if you knew enough about computing in those days to be employable at Google, then you grew up in technology watching IBM lose to Microsoft, then watching Microsoft crush Apple, and then watching the government strangle Microsoft. And then you got to enjoy watching Google beat the crap out of Microsoft. It’s just human nature to watch all this and make it into a morality play, with extremely domain-specific notions of “good” and “evil.”
When the government hampered Microsoft in the ’90s, that was a fair comeuppance for an abusive player, just as had happened to IBM in the ’80s when Microsoft was coming up. Small new companies innovate into the spaces left by the decrepitude of large old companies. The cycle of life applies to all of us, businesses too. In business, as in life, that cycle plays out in predictable patterns. And as humans, we love telling ourselves a story about our patterns. And to be compelling, our stories must have good guys and bad guys, good and evil. “Don’t Be Evil” is a morality play, and it is just a fiction, but still, these notions of good and evil move us – especially when we’re deciding where to work and how to win competitive battles.
So IBM vs Microsoft, Microsoft vs Apple, Microsoft vs Google – that was the drama that played out in information technology at the time, and our notions of “good” and “evil” were aligned with the prevailing morality play that everyone knew as orthodoxy, even if they disagreed with it: Microsoft was the bad guy, Apple was awesome and cool before MSFT used monopolistic advantages to crush them (this was before the Second Coming of Jobs). Microsoft was Evil. Google was Good.
So in this morality play, “evil” means, basically: using “business techniques” instead of superior technology to win. Don’t Be Evil simply means: win with technology, not with business techniques.
“Business techniques” include perfectly legitimate and absolutely necessary decisions and deals around pricing, packaging, and distribution. But that’s just the bare minimum. The expanded world of business techniques gets pretty gray pretty fast, and eventually you end up where we are today: dark patterns that manipulate users, platform rent-seeking, externalization of business costs into the community, lobbying and other political manipulation. I don’t really like calling these things “evil,” but it’s fair to say that these are the tactics and methods of mature businesses, and they are not what successful startups do.
I worry that the tech world has been so dominated by the usual BigTech suspects for so long now that entrepreneurs have forgotten the difference between Good and Evil. But no matter: the world doesn’t need to remember because the truth will out: for the first time in a long time, nearly all the BigTech companies are grappling with disruptive technologies that they do not understand. When there is this much disruption in the air, fancy business techniques become less valuable, and a True North for product development becomes far more valuable. For the first time in a long time, opportunity is everywhere, all incumbents are vulnerable, and all startups have this one incontestable upper hand: Don’t Be Evil is a winning strategy, not an empty corporate motto.