Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is Google redefining 'don't be evil'?

By Douglas Rushkoff
updated 12:04 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
One of military robots from Boston Dynamics, which was purchased by Google.
One of military robots from Boston Dynamics, which was purchased by Google.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Google recently acquired military robot maker Boston Dynamics
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Evil is in the eyes of the beholder; people question what Google is up to
  • We get into trouble with new technology if we don't pause to think what it's for, he says
  • Rushkoff: We must transcend the mere avoidance of "evil" and seek to do good

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of the new book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

(CNN) -- "Do the right thing; don't be evil

Honesty and integrity in all we do

Our business practices are beyond reproach

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

We make money by doing good things"

So goes the sixth point in Google's official statement of core values years ago, often condensed to the informal company motto, "Don't be evil."

It's supposed to make us feel better about trying new technologies from Chrome notebooks to Google Glass. Don't worry -- we're not going to screw with you. So when it comes time someday to inject our brains with nanobots that give us the ability to speak new languages, we can rest assured that Google won't change the user agreement on us after the fact and plant advertisements into our dreams while we're asleep. That is, if the company judges such practices to be truly evil.

Well, some of Google's recent forays are waking people up to the fact that evil is in the eyes of the beholder. The company just acquired military robot maker Boston Dynamics, leading to great consternation in the Twitterverse. As @BrentButt put it this week in a tweet that caught fire:

Truth be told, the robots Boston Dynamics makes are pretty cool. Based on animal physiology, they can run, jump, balance and even chase stuff. As something of a technogeek myself, I can see why a bunch of engineers would want to play with this technology.

What we have to ask, and keep asking at every turn, is: To what end? What real purpose are we serving?

Not doing evil is actually a pretty low bar to begin with. Is this really a high aspiration? To avoid embodying Satan in silicon?

Google's growing army of robots

Even if we accept avoiding evil as the mantra of the digital age, the presumption here is that evil is like a line of code that can simply be excluded from the overall program. Oops! Line 45 of that app has some evil in it. Better change it.

We can't employ an entirely programmatic approach to human affairs. However well we think we might be embedding our technologies with the values we hope to express, more often than not we also get unexpected consequences.

Cars lead to pollution and oil to wars. Smartphones lead to distraction and car accidents. Big data leads to coercive marketing and government to massive surveillance. Something awfully close to evil is quite a common side effect.

Google seems aware of this, at least from a public relations perspective. Likely concerned about what it looks like for the company to be developing military hardware, the company recently donated $5 million to the World Wildlife Federation for drones to track down rhinoceros poachers in Africa. It's as if they're out to prove that drones are not necessarily evil.

Still, we can't help but do a bit of evil when we build technology upon technology, without taking a pause to ask what it's all for.

New technologies give us the opportunity to reevaluate the systems we have been using up until now, and consider doing things differently.

But the stock-market-fueled culture of Silicon Valley too often focuses on efficiency of execution rather than clarity of purpose.

The result is that our best Stanford computer science graduates end up writing algorithms that better extract money from the stock market, rather than exploring whether capital is even serving its original purpose of getting funds to new businesses.

Or the engineers behind Bitcoin develop a brilliant new digital currency without evaluating the purpose of money in our society. The problem to be addressed is that too much cash has ended up stuck in the coffers of the speculators. Instead of thinking about how to encourage peer-to-peer transaction, Bitcoin's developers simply built another speculative currency, only this time on digital steroids.

Likewise, war is not a great approach to conflict resolution. Adding robot soldiers to the mix merely improves the efficiency of killing. How might robots be used to reduce conflict instead of enact it?

When we develop technology in a vacuum, disconnected from the reality in which people really live, we are too likely to spend our energy designing some abstract vision of a future life rather than addressing the pains and injustices around us right now. Technology becomes a way of escaping the world's problems, whether through virtual reality or massive Silicon Valley stock options packages, rather than engaging with them.

But the don't-do-evil mandate doesn't even ask Google's programmers to evaluate the purpose of a technology -- only to perform a basic "checksum," or error correction, for evil itself. How pathetically binary. This is not enough for a company that appears dedicated to uploading human consciousness to the cloud, no matter how many robot warriors we have protecting our virtual reality servers from the people we leave behind.

I'm not arguing against technology or that we do less with it. Quite the contrary. I'm arguing we do more. It's not enough to computerize and digitize the society we have, and exacerbate its problems by new means. We must transcend the mere avoidance of the patently evil and instead seek to do good. That may involve actually overturning and remaking some institutions and processes from the ground up.

That's the real potential of digital technology. To retrieve the values and ideas that may have seemed impossible before and see whether we can realize them today in this very new world.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT