When Google abandoned its former mantra, “Don’t be evil,” last year, the motto had already become something of a joke.
It originated in 2004, in a statement from the Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as the company prepared to go public. At the time, it was seen as a barb to Microsoft, often cast as Goliath to Google’s David, and which was sometimes described as “the evil empire” in Silicon Valley.
“Don’t be evil” was also, depending on whom you asked, naive at best and suspicious at worst. (If you need to remind yourself not to be evil, of all things, in your corporate slogan, perhaps something has already gone terribly wrong.) Or maybe it was just a sunny branding quip: Brin and Page said they wanted to do good, to change the world, to make it a better place.
It’s understandable, then, that the mantra naturally begged the question: Is Google evil, after all? (“‘Don’t be evil’ is an invitation to debate,” the Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said in 2008. “It means we will fight over what it means.”)
Perhaps a ramped-up lobbying presence in Washington was evidence of blossoming evil. Or Google’s willingness to comply with Chinese censors. Or when Google combed through the contents of Gmail users’ inboxes so it could serve them relevant advertising. Or its business model, which is based on turning people’s data into profit. Or, when, between 2008 and 2010, Google collected massive troves of data—emails, user names, passwords, documents, images—from unsecured wifi networks. “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line,” Schmidt once told The Atlantic, “and not cross it.”
“But more recently, Google hasn’t just crossed this line—it’s vaulted it,” Charlie Warzel wrote for BuzzFeed in 2014. “It bought a DARPA-funded robotics company whose demo videos routinely went viral for being deeply unsettling. It just spent over $3 billion for a company that makes thermostats that sense users’ presence in the room … It’s a subtle mutation of an old motto: Don’t seem evil.”
“Evil” might seem hyperbolic were it not Google’s word choice to begin with, but it began to represent Google’s transformation from a garage-run startup into a global powerhouse.
Now, Google is transforming again. Last year, Page announced Google would become Alphabet, a new parent company that would encompass all of Google’s enterprises, including Google. It was a way to keep Google sleek, focused on its core mission and products; and allow Google’s other brands and acquisitions to do the same. This week, Alphabet announced it would rebrand its innovation lab, formerly Google Ideas, as Jigsaw. To understand what these rebranding and restructuring efforts reveal about Google and Alphabet, it helps to look back to Google’s origins, and the ongoing debate about good versus evil in Silicon Valley.
“We liked the name Alphabet,” Page wrote last year, “because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search! We also like that it means alpha‑bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!”
That earnestness! Those exclamation points! Classic “don’t be evil” stuff. But there’s more going on here. For one thing, Alphabet seemed, as many people have pointed out, overwhelmingly childish. Google has always wrapped itself in doodles and primary colors, but Alphabet took it to the next level. The building-block imagery of its logo wasn’t elementary school, it was preschool. Alphabet seemed, as a colleague put it to me this week, “menacingly infantile.” That’s not a mistake. (Google declined to speak with me on-record about the rebranding.)
“In an effort to remind users that it’s the world’s most lovable mega-corporation strip-mining your personal data for advertisers’ use,” John Teti wrote for the A.V. Club last year. “Google has unveiled a new logo that’s cuter and friendlier than ever.”
“It’s interesting that Google entrenches in this self-presentation as infantile and unthreatening,” the University of Sussex English professor Natalia Cecire wrote on her blog, “precisely in the act of basically announcing itself to be en route to multiplying itself 26-fold, which is, let’s face it, terrifying.”
Terrifying because Google is one of the technology behemoths—along with Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft—vying for an enormous amount of global power and influence. (“We don’t need you to type at all,” Schmidt told The Atlantic in 2010. “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”) And, surely, Amazon—with its own “A-to-Z” branding—must interpret Alphabet as a form of competitive posturing. All this amounts to cuteness as a distraction to consumers, cuteness as a message of aggression to competitors, cuteness with, as Cecire puts it, a “violent undertow.”
“The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism,” Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, wrote for The New York Times in 2013, criticizing Google for failing to recognize “the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing.” The answer to the question of whether Google was evil, he argued, was so obviously “yes” that just asking it had become banal.
Now, instead of avoiding evil, Alphabet is both all-encompassing and gets to be whatever its individual brands want. (Naturally, Alphabet owns the domains abc.xyz and abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.com.) “I should add that we are not intending for this to be a big consumer brand with related products,” Page wrote when he announced Alphabet. “The whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands.”
There’s C for Calico, N for Nest, S for Sidewalk Labs, V for Verily, X for X, and so on. J, of course, is for Jigsaw, a tech incubator that promises it can prevent digital attacks, keep critical data safe, and defend against “the world’s most challenging security threats.” Its ambitions are super-hero-esque in scope and scale. In announcing the rebranding, Alphabet said Jigsaw would “counter money laundering, organized crime, police brutality, human trafficking, and terrorism.”
The name “Jigsaw” may call to mind a child’s puzzle, but it also, as Julia Powles points out for The Guardian, evokes the word’s imperial origins: “dissected maps of the British empire—cultural objects of imperial ideology.”
At the very least, Alphabet has made it clear that it isn’t just a rebrand of Google, but an expansion.
“This belief was the impetus for our organizational structure, which enhances focus on opportunities within Google and across Alphabet, while also pushing our leadership to extend the frontier that we are addressing,” said Alphabet’s chief finance officer, Ruth Porat, in the company’s last earnings call.
Google’s explanation of Jigsaw is, of course, far more parochial. “Why Jigsaw? For one thing, the new name acknowledges that the world is a complex puzzle of physical and digital challenges,” Schmidt, the Alphabet executive, wrote in a blog post. “For another, it reflects our belief that collaborative problem-solving yields the best solutions.”
That includes, as Kurt Wagner wrote this week for ReCode, influencing policy “in ways that benefit major tech players, including Alphabet.”
“Don’t be evil” doesn’t appear in Alphabet’s code of conduct. Instead, employees are told, they should “do the right thing.” But if the old motto evoked queries about what evil actually looks like in practice, this newer mantra begs a new question: Do good for whom?
For Google, and for Jigsaw, and for every other letter in Alphabet’s alphabet, expanding global dominance is a way of ensuring that things, as Google wants them to be, all fall into place.