Google and Others: Evil, Weird, or Something Else? http://lauren.vortex.com/archive/000949.html
An interesting article appeared today in The New York Times
titled "Don't Be Evil, but Don't Miss the Train" ( http://j.mp/JY0bAq
While I don't agree with everything in that piece, it does take an
unusually nuanced view of complex situations involving Web giants like
Google and others, topics that all too often are reduced to simplistic
(and inaccurate) platitudes in the media.
I would assert that there's an important, implicit lesson that comes
from the article's discussion as well: Communication is Critical.
For example, the article notes the (once again in the news) story of
Google's collection of unencrypted Wi-Fi "payload" data from their
Street View vehicles, which has triggered complaints both in the U.S.
and other countries. The article says about this:
"Evil? Hard to know. But certainly weird..."
This is a particularly interesting assessment. Why is it "hard to
I've long been on the record as believing that way too much has been
made of Google's Wi-Fi lapse, which I do believe was entirely
But we're wrong to assume that everyone will automatically make the
same assumption or even believe it.
After all, what percentage of politicians, or Internet users in
general, have done packet level debugging, or know what "tcpdump -w"
does -- or have even heard of "tcpdump" for that matter? And what
proportion of typical Internet users have experienced how easy it can
be to accidentally leave debugging code enabled in deployed and
In the absence of relevant communications and information, it's an
unfortunate aspect of human nature to assume the worse, to start
believing the conspiracy theories, and in fact to play into the hands
of those forces who purposely spread misinformation about their
competitors or other "designated enemies."
When users can't get substantive answers to their questions or
meaningful responses and explanations for their problems, they're not
going to be concerned with issues of scale, they're only going to know
that they feel like they're being ignored. And especially for folks
with relatively serious issues, this is a recipe for damaging rumors
and bad relations all around, especially when such cases, even when
based on misinformation or misunderstandings, go viral and break
through into mainstream media. Problems that could have been easily
solved early on can quickly evolve from annoyances to public relations
nightmares, and worse.
It's all too easy for we technologists to assume, even if only
subconsciously, that "most people" will be of a similar mind as ours,
and will react in much the same way that we and our colleagues would
be expected to behave in any given situation.
Much or even most of the time, this assumption is simply not in
conformance with reality.
None of this is usually a question of good or evil per se -- like the
rest of the world, technology doesn't actually work that way.
But it is very definitely true that communications with users is key,
and in the long run will usually be worth whatever it costs to
provide, both in terms of people and funding, for Web services of
every size, from the very smallest right on up.
In this way, we all stand a good chance of avoiding having our
well-meaning actions (and our innocent mistakes) being misinterpreted
as confusing, or arrogant, or weird, or worst of all of course -- as evil.
-- Lauren --