It is rare that I devote two consecutive days to Google CEO Eric Schmidt's foolishness; but, if the guy is on a roll, then I may as well be, too! Yesterday it was ultimately a matter of complete (and calculated?) ignorance of who his audience was and what their concerns were. This morning I found myself thinking once again about those "Ten things Google has found to be true," whether they really mean anything and, if so, how to take them.
Once again, it all comes down to what Schmidt actually said. This time the words were documented by Reuters reporter Alexei Oreskovic in a story he filed last night, after spending the day with 400 information technology managers in an event hosted at the Googleplex. Here are Schmidt's words:
Every government sort of has some group that's busy trying to figure out what we're up to. Because information is power.
We're quite disruptive, and in the course of that disruption we tend to create enemies, which are hopefully not intended on our part.
Oreskovic elaborated that these enemies include government regulators (and the many governments they represent) and other technology companies.
This set me to thinking about the sixth of those "Ten things Google has found to be true," which also happens to be the one that attracts the most attention and is most frequently misquoted. The actual text reads:
6. You can make money without doing evil.
(I also see with some amusement that the last time I discussed this item, I noted wryly that it was not at the top of the Google list.) What, if anything, is the relationship between making enemies and doing evil?
I suppose the most direct reading would be that it is all right to make enemies as long as those enemies are evil. This is the sort of simplistic Manichaeism under which President George W. Bush scuttled any possibility of diplomacy grounded in serious two-way communication and is now being espoused by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor in support of Israeli resistance to such communication with any Arab entity. This would seem to further imply that communication with such enemies is out of the question. One does not negotiate. One only proceeds down one's own (possibly disruptive) course; and there is no evil in disruption prevailing, because only evil people will suffer. This is the sort of reasoning that emerges from philosophical speculation. The fact that the list of ten things is on a Google page entitled "Our Philosophy" has previously led me to wonder whether anyone responsible for that list actually knows what a philosophy is.
Indeed, the real lesson from this kind of philosophical exercise is that the very concept of evil is highly complex. It is hard to find an introductory course in philosophy that does not confront this problem somewhere in the course of its curriculum. Indeed, "evil" is probably the most salient object lesson in the principle that words are not to be taken lightly; and this now brings us to the heart of Ken Auletta's cautionary remarks about "bumping into" reality. Whatever the Google "philosophy" (scare quotes intended) may be, the heart of the revenue-bearing business resides in keywords; the result is a technology that essentially reduces the word to a string of characters, thus neatly dispensing with any matters concerned with syntax, semantics, pragmatics, or any other consideration that addresses how a text is actually interpreted. When you strip all trappings of meaning from the word itself, "bumping into" reality is inevitable, just as it is when people speaking different languages are mediated by a poor translator. Many of those "bumps" are humorous; and we can laugh them off simply by acknowledging that "this is the way Google works." Auletta's warning, however, involves the risk that, as Google becomes even more prolific, the more sinister "bumps" will begin to increase and eventually outnumber the humorous ones.
I suspect that this is just another way of saying that it is too easy to think about a new technology without putting any time into considering the consequences that might ensue from that technology. Disruption, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinister; and little is gained from trying to categorize those who espouse it (or, for that matter, oppose it) as either good or evil. However, the pursuit of disruption with a willful refusal to reflect on possible consequences entails considerable risk. When a government makes a decision to create and manage a regulatory agency, it is with the conviction that regulation is the best way to abate risk for the good of the general population. If Schmidt chooses to live his own life with less concern for risk abatement, that is his own affair. Expecting the rest of this country (or the rest of the world) to live the same way, however, is another matter; and there is something both disquieting and distasteful in labeling those more concerned with risk abatement as "enemies," even if this is just another flaunting of that principle that words are not to be taken lightly.