Don’t Be Evil


On Technology

Google, Alphabet, and Machiavelli.

Santi di Tito, Niccolò Machiavelli, sixteenth century

Yesterday, Google submitted an SEC filing announcing a major restructure. Larry Page, the cofounder and CEO of Google Inc, will become the CEO of a new corporation called Alphabet Inc; his fellow cofounder Sergey Brin will become Alphabet’s President. As an Alphabet subsidiary, Google will be responsible for around ninety percent of the umbrella company’s revenues; business analysts have praised the restructure for introducing financial transparency. In practical terms, Google will continue to operate as Google—business as usual for ordinary users.

And yet.

So far, the announcement of the Google’s reinvention has prompted many ordinary users to compare it to the One Ring, Skynet, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and Canary M Burns. I have not yet seen it hailed as the return of King Arthur, nor heralded as the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven, Shangri-La, Vaikuntha, or the New Galactic Republic. Perhaps it’s just me; perhaps I should read more, or develop a wider circle of friends. Or perhaps the eschatologists on social media tend to be the paranoid pessimistic ones, and all around the world there are non-Google employees tearfully, joyfully, celebrating the coming decades of peace and prosperity for all.

It’s not unrealistic, this popular blurring of corporate and political entities. In 2008 I contributed to a report by the London think-tank Demos, delineating contemporary Europe. What most countries on the European landmass had in common, we discovered, was not participation in NATO, UNESCO, the OECD, or the Euro; it was participation in UEFA, in MTV, and in the Eurovision song contest. In 2014 the Transnational Institute’s annual State of Power report found that thirty-seven of the one hundred largest economies in the world were corporations rather than nation states. The annual revenue of Apple, for example, was greater than the GDP of Bangladesh, Hungary, or Morocco. Handling power on this scale requires statecraft: the sound business reasons for Google’s transformation are accompanied by sharp political nous.

“Princes ought to leave affairs of reproach to the management of others,” counseled Machiavelli in 1513, “and keep those of grace in their own hands.” The restructuring of Google into Alphabet allows some of Google’s wider, non-internet activities and subsidiaries to be distanced from it, politically. These include Boston Dynamics (“Changing Your Idea of What Robots Can Do”): half of the robots listed on its site were developed with funding by, or in association with, DARPA. And Alphabet owns Calico, an R&D company in the life sciences focused on interventions against aging, and against poor health in old age—including cancer and neurodegenerative conditions. Alphabet will also manage Nest, a subsidiary in the internet of things whose product range includes an intelligent smoke alarm (“It’s time to know more and worry less”), a “learning thermostat” that gets to know household habits and predict preferences, and a live-feed home camera system—all of which can be connected to each other, and to a phone (yours or someone else’s).

These non-Google activities are eclectic, but not incoherent. They dovetail with, and may be driven by, the behavioral and demographic insights gained from the Google business—insights both international and intimate. Through Google, there are some ways in which Alphabet will know more about you than your partner, your lover, your bank manager, your doctor, your psychiatrist, your priest, your government, or all of these combined. Even if you withhold personal information from Google, your privacy will be as short-lived and effective as a paper umbrella in the rain: the sheer volume of data available to Google from everyone else will allow it to predict or infer about you quite accurately.

Would Google have this kind of penetration and ubiquity if it were associated with military excursions, pharmaceuticals, and domestic surveillance? Probably not. Protecting Google from political contamination from Alphabet’s wider activities is not just necessary for Google—it’s necessary for Alphabet. Google search is mostly safe, mostly helpful, and free: by associating it with grace and favor, as Machiavelli advises, Alphabet can contain possible affairs of reproach elsewhere in its portfolio. This is shrewd statecraft.


A still from WarGames (1983)

Now it can be evil!” is how summarized the dominant reaction on social media to Google’s announcement. Those paranoid, pessimistic eschatologists again? “As Sergey and I wrote in the original founders letter eleven years ago,” Larry Page’s Alphabet announcement yesterday began, “’Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.’” Page was quoting from the August 2004 founders’ letter, the first of his and Sergey Brin’s annual letters to Google shareholders beginning with Google’s IPO. That original 2004 document also included this famous statement:

Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long-term, we will be better served as shareholders and in all other ways by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.

It may seem to some that the creation of Alphabet releases Page and Brin from their 2004 promise. This, too, would be shrewd statecraft. “A wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer,” advised Machiavelli. “It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful.” Page didn’t take the opportunity, this week, to reiterate “don’t be evil” as the new company’s unofficial slogan. But that promise hadn’t been repeated by Page or Brin in their annual founders’ letters after 2004 anyway. It’s as strong—or as weak—now as it’s been in the last eleven years, and its nature is unclear. “Don’t be evil,” Google instructs its staff in its Code of Conduct—guidelines for professional ethics in the workplace. “You can make money without doing evil,” Google asserts in its company philosophy—an edict that outlines its guiding principles for its advertising programs. If these are the only commitments that “don’t be evil” entails, then there’s no reason to think the advent of Alphabet changes anything.

The virtues required in statecraft are different than the virtues required of a private citizen—something Machiavelli was keen to impress upon his readers: “A prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion.” But Machiavelli saw unethical acts by the prince as a legitimate last resort, rather than the core values on which the state should be built and maintained. For Machiavelli, the wisest course of action for a prince was to ensure that his people were happy and safe under his rule. In this way they would not be tempted to conspire against him or support rebellions; his reign would be able to withstand domestic stressors such as famine and external stressors such as war or the threat of invasion. The greatest rulers, in Machiavelli’s eyes, were those who won and maintained their kingdoms through strategic and diplomatic prowess—not through the good luck of a powerful family name or governing in prosperous times; not through relying on military force and violent intimidation; and not through relying on bribery or unsustainable gift-giving to try to earn respect. Seen in this light, Machiavelli doesn’t expect people to serve an unworthy ruler. Challenges from the population help a wise prince to get better.

If corporate entities and political entities are increasingly blurry, it follows that we, as citizens, also have a kind of dual identity or citizenship with them. As with ordinary, national citizenship, we may not have chosen it, but we have it nonetheless; as with ordinary, national citizenship, we may not like the environment in which we find ourselves, but here we are. Asserting our citizenship gives the ruler reasons to govern better. One doesn’t have to be a shareholder of Alphabet to maintain an interest in its activities, or to engage with the structures and organizations aimed at improving responsible innovation, ethical research, and sensible regulation in the areas where Alphabet works. For Machiavelli, after all, an ignorant and lazy population are not a credit to their prince. They’re as dangerous to the polity as an ignorant and lazy ruler—potentially, even, “evil.”

MG Zimeta is a writer and academic philosopher, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL.