‘Don’t be evil’ is a very low bar.

Google’s corporate motto is ‘Don’t be evil’

According to Wikipedia, the Google employee Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, said he “wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out”, adding that the slogan was “also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent.”

Many of you might well think that Google has indeed been ‘evil’ during its existence – often by ‘kind of exploiting the users to some extent’ by collecting information surreptitiously for financial gain. But what surprises me more about the whole DBE thing is how great it sounded fifteen years ago, and how it took me fifteen years to think a bit harder about it, finally realising that it’s a pretty weak aim.

Don’t be evil? Funny that it even needs saying, given that the alternative is saying that your corporate motto is ‘be evil’, or at least ‘be evil sometimes’. How have we reached a stage in global society where we applaud people simply for not being evil? Have the corporations who have not made this statement accepted that they are inevitably going to be evil? Why is the default position, one that needs to be corrected with a statement, ‘be evil’?

Part of the reason this has piqued my interest is the existence of ‘Ethical Investment’ in my life. When my financial adviser first asked me about where I’d like to invest, I told him that I only wanted to put my money in ethical funds. He was somewhat surprised, offering a reaction along the lines of ‘on your head be it’. As it turned out, those investments seem to have gone quite well, but I can’t help thinking that it is fucking insane that people have to make a deliberate choice to invest in companies that don’t indulge in, say, human rights abuses, or trade arms for the purposes of making money.

It seems that being ‘evil’ (I know the meaning of that word is entirely subjective, but I think there are one or two things it denotes that we can generally agree on) is indeed some kind of default modus operandi for much of the corporate world, and by extension those that support it. It’s just that way things are and we should be fine with that because it’s somehow and somewhat unavoidable.

Well, there are alternatives. You and I and Bill Gates (still has plenty of money in fossil fuel companies) can choose to clear that low bar that seems oddly too high for much of the world.

Come on… Don’t be evil.