Looking back, there is something absurd about Google’s 2004 pledge of “Don’t be evil.” That declaration captures a lot about the dubious role technology has played over the past decade, and what the tech industry—including everyone working on blockchain—has to do next if we want to live in a decent world.
In August 2004, Google filed for its initial public offering. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin coauthored a letter in the S1 registration describing Google as “an unconventional company.” The most striking part was the “Don’t be evil” promise. No high-profile company had ever felt a need to guarantee, in a government document, that it would not be Satan’s Sherpa.
Google at the time was gunning to succeed Microsoft as the great gravitational force in technology. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates today comes off as an intellectual philanthropist, but the 1990s version ranked as one of the most bad-ass business bullies in history. Gates taught the tech industry how to build a monopoly, control all the most important toll gates, and leverage that position to trounce opponents, intimidate partners, and overcharge consumers for stuff they didn’t want or need.
The company was tried for antitrust by the federal government, and evidence showed Microsoft executives using phrases like “crush them” and “take away their oxygen supply” when plotting to do away with competitors.
Maybe it’s unfair to say Microsoft was literally evil. But let’s put it this way: Google’s pledge to not be evil—quietly expunged from its code of conduct last year—intentionally positioned the company as the anti-Microsoft. Everyone knew exactly who Google was talking about. The S1 just left off a couple of extra words: “Don’t be evil like Microsoft.”
This was the state of the technology industry in the early-2000s. A budding monopolistic tech powerhouse had to pledge that it wouldn’t be evil because Microsoft had conditioned us to believe that a monopolistic tech powerhouse would likely be evil.
“The upshot is that technology has shattered more than our old social contract; it has challenged what it means to be a human being in society.”
But a pledge to avoid evil is not the same as a pledge to do good. And that set the tone for the following decade, right up until 2018.
The prevailing sensibility at most tech companies over the past dozen years has been: we can do anything we want as long as it’s not actually evil. Facebook put posters on headquarters walls that said, “Move fast and break things.” It didn’t include reminders to consider the consequences of breaking some things—like, say, elections or the news industry. The siren call of Silicon Valley has been to be “disruptive,” whether anyone really wants that thing blown up or not. “Fail fast and iterate” has meant throwing test projects out to the public to see what might happen, and worry about the impact later. Engineers have considered every human activity to be a target for optimization or automation, regardless of what anxiety that might inflict on society.
And the ultimate goal has been to suck in as much data as possible about people, places and things—because, as the cliché goes, data is the new oil. Just get the data, and then make money on it any way possible. Use it to target advertising. Sell it to hedge funds. Use it to learn how to hack our brains.
The blockchain community hasn’t avoided damaging fallout, either. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies don’t come with any regard for how they might destabilize existing currencies or help out money launderers and drug dealers. ICOs are a promising new way to build companies, but they’ve also created a new way to foist outright scams on the public.
None of this technology is inherently evil. In fact, it’s given us a lot of wonderful stuff. Most of us are thankful for GPS directions, endless streaming music, and the ability to get a car ride without standing dangerously close to traffic and waving. Still, most technology that has emerged over the past decade is neutral at best. It is soulless. The technology does what it does, and whether it makes society better or worse is up to how it’s used.
But it’s not GOOD.
In fact, tech’s laissez-faire approach has resulted in a great deal of collateral damage. “The upshot is that technology has shattered more than our old social contract; it has challenged what it means to be a human being in society,” Don Tapscott, cofounder of The Blockchain Institute, wrote in a paper last year. “More than any other factor it contributes to structural unemployment, social inequality, and a bifurcation of power in many countries. It is at the heart of the failure of many institutions, the fragmentation of public discourse, the decimation of our privacy, and the decline of individual and family security.”
It goes without saying that such breakdowns have helped give us President Trump, Brexit, and radical politics all over the globe.
Which brings us to this: Technology needs a new moral compass, and it needs it now. The industry is just starting to unleash a wave of technology that will have greater impact than smart phones, social networks, and the cloud combined. Blockchain promises to reinvent the whole internet—along with concepts like money, law, and trust. Artificial intelligence is just getting started. Other tech coming-attractions include 3-D printing and virtual reality. Such powerhouse technologies absolutely cannot be neutral—because neutral opens the door to evil.
Our tech leaders have to embrace the concept that their products and services can’t cause personal or global turmoil—because turmoil isn’t good for business. It sure isn’t good for our families, or our legacy. Get enough disruption and incivility, and you wind up with wars. Nobody thinks cataclysmic war is possible…until it happens. Every tech inventor, founder, and CEO has to take responsibility for what they unleash.
What we need today is not so different from how the attitude of business leaders shifted after the outbreak of World War II.
Nobody else is going to do it. Yes, the European Union passed GDPR to try to fix some issues around data and privacy. But, GDPR is basically sticking a finger in a dike and hoping it will stop the flood. The U.S. Congress is in too much disarray to pass any kind of sweeping technology governance, while the Trump administration has decided that antitrust is a quaint concept not worth enforcing. Complex proposals ranging from universal basic income to algorithmic accountability pour out of think tanks—helpful ideas, yes, but what’s the likelihood any of it will get implemented?
We have to rely on a simpler path: a change in the mindset of everyone who develops technology. Every tech founder has to want to build a company that one-ups Google and moves the needle from “Don’t be evil” to the next level. In fact, we need to see one small phrase in every document filed for every IPO or ICO or VC funding round: “Do good.”
Technology companies now have to do good. Anything less, and we’ll get more of what we’ve already wrought.
The blockchain community certainly is in position to do good. We’re hearing a lot of chatter about how a decentralized blockchain-based social network could give us the benefits of Facebook without handing so much data and power to one entity. Done right, tokens can democratize finance, giving startups far outside the Silicon Valley ecosystem better access to capital and opening up early-stage investment to billions of individuals. Companies like Plastic Bank, which is building a blockchain-driven system to collect and recycle plastic in developing nations, are showing ways to run a business and do good at the same time.
Blockchain is a broad religion that includes anarchists, libertarians, utopians, and pragmatists. All of them need to wake up every morning and ask whether what they’re doing is going to make most people’s lives better. Neutrality won’t cut it anymore.
It’s been a long time since American industry has been driven by a greater good. But what we need today is not so different from how the attitude of business leaders shifted after the outbreak of World War II. Industries weren’t nationalized and made to contribute to the war effort. Instead, companies retooled and realigned out of a sense of duty. Many did it because they understood the consequences of not doing everything possible to win the war. Failure would threaten their very way of life.
Tech pioneers should feel that same kind of urgency now. They need to know in their bones that failure to make emerging technology good will be the biggest mistake they ever make.