New questions over Google’s ‘do no evil’ pledge

I’m feeling lucky: Last year, the revenue of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was $110 billion. © Getty

Is Google a force for good? Yesterday, staff around the world walked out of the tech giant’s offices over its handling of sexual misconduct claims. Does the company have a dark side?

“Don’t be evil.”

So runs Google’s motto, which was quietly demoted to the last sentence of the tech giant’s code of conduct in April.

There are growing questions about whether the message rings true. Yesterday, Google employees walked out of offices in Singapore, Zurich, London, Tokyo, Berlin, New York and more to protest the company’s treatment of sexual misconduct claims.

Employees are demanding several changes to policy, including one that would let victims sue the company.

Some experts think the site is also harming its users.

In 1998, Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were working from a modest garage in California with a server made from Lego. Twenty years later, their search engine processes 40,000 queries a second and 3.5 billion each day, drawing on trillions of web pages.

But it is not just for surfing the web. Google now permeates every area of our lives. Google Home can order your food and even tell you a story on request. Our smartphones, which we check on average every 12 seconds, probably use Google’s Android operating system.

Google Maps not only tells us how to get to our destination but offers personalised suggestions of places we might like. Gmail even suggests the very words we might want to type.

Increasingly, Google is doing our thinking for us.

This could prove harmful. An estimated 90% of us are suffering from the “Google effect”, whereby we become more forgetful because we no longer need to commit facts to memory with the world’s information at our fingertips.

“The facts themselves [are] less important than the discipline of remembering them,” says writer Andrew Keen. One study found that the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today.

By relying on file storage services like Google Photos, we may even be forgetting our own lives.

Our reliance on Google could also have consequences for our mental health. There is a growing body of evidence linking internet use with depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Has Google been a force for good?

Surfin’

No way, say some. Like many other tech companies, it has become clear that Google has a toxic culture that does not recognise women’s experiences and concerns. And its habit of “suggesting” the places we go, and even the words we use, could erode our ability to think independently and endanger individuality. We’ll end up zombies.

Of course, argue others. It’s miraculous that the wealth of human knowledge is available to anyone, anywhere at the touch of a button. No resource in history has been more useful and liberating. It’s taught us how to think smarter. Besides, do we really want to go back to a time when knowledge was stored away for only a fortunate few?

You Decide

  1. Has Google changed our lives for the better?
  2. What would happen if we took down the internet tomorrow?

Activities

  1. Research the most Googled terms for 2018 so far. Write a paragraph on what this tells you about the knowledge people gain from the internet and discuss your answer in a group.
  2. Research one of Google’s co-founders and write a 500-word profile about him.

Some People Say...

“We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”

Sergey Brin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Yesterday, Google employees walked out of offices in Singapore, Zurich, London, Tokyo, Berlin, New York and more to protest the company’s treatment of sexual misconduct claims. Employees are demanding several changes to policy, including one that would let victims sue the firm. Google was founded on September 4, 1998, by Americans Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who were studying towards their PhDs at Stanford University at the time.
What do we not know?
The long-term consequences of our reliance on search engines instead of our memories. Google has changed the way we learn and removed our reliance on libraries. Knowing how to search for some information quickly is now arguably more important than knowing the information itself.

Word Watch

Google Home
The company’s smart speaker home assistant can listen to a user’s voice and carry out basic tasks. Earlier this year, Google Home outsold the Amazon Echo home assistant for the first time.
Probably
Android smartphones accounts for over 80% of the world’s smartphone sales.
Extended mind thesis
The theory was first proposed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, coincidentally, in 1998. They argue that the mind is not simply contained within the skull: mental processes can involve external objects.
Google Effect
Also known as digital amnesia. Those aged between 16 and 24 are most likely to rely on their smartphone for everything they need to know or remember.
Study
Conducted by Microsoft.
Forgetting our own lives
One study split a group of people visiting an art gallery into two groups: one that took photos of the artwork and one that did not. Upon questioning shortly after, those who took photos had poorer memories of the art they had seen.

Subjects