In defense of evil

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos says reports of evil in high tech and elsewhere are overblown.

Evil is getting a really bad reputation these days.

This dawned on me the other day, while I searched for a book on Amazon.com. I was sitting in a Starbucks, enjoying an overpriced coffee drink while also patronizing a conglomerate that has laid waste to America's independent booksellers. It was actually quite enjoyable.

The "evil" label has been bandied about in high-tech circles since the beginning of the computer age. Many feared that the Jacquard Loom, the prototype for modern computers, would lead to massive unemployment and poverty for weavers. Activists protested IBM and other conglomerates for their contribution to Pentagon planning during the Vietnam War.

A Google search for Stalin and DRM turns up about 40,000 hits (and only a few are for sites selling DRM-protected versions of Camper Van Beethoven's "Joe Stalin's Cadillac").

Microsoft, of course, has been tagged as a malign source of energy in the universe ever since it incorporated spell check into Word.

The term, however, seems to be getting spread thin. Software patents? Evil, unless you're one of the hundreds of thousands of people who work at places (Yahoo, Google, the University of California) that own them, or you use the products of a company that does. Genetically modified foods are evil, though farmers and scientists admit that they lead to a reduction of chemical pesticides. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has issued four press releases warning about threats to my freedom this month.

One of the major wellsprings of evil this side of Myanmar are record companies. A Google search for Stalin and DRM turns up about 40,000 hits (and only a few are for sites selling DRM-protected versions of Camper Van Beethoven's "Joe Stalin's Cadillac").

"I thought Joe McCarthy and Joe Stalin were dead, but obviously they're alive and well, and running the Record Industry Association of America," Wayne Rosso , president of Grokster, said in 2003. It's a little-known fact that it wasn't the torture and deprivation that made life in gulags so difficult--it was the fact that they took away your record collection.

Unfortunately, the more evil you find, the grayer it gets. Bloggers are good because they break the alleged stranglehold of big media. Many bloggers, however, rely on big-media content to fill their sites. And what is big media? It's a bunch of people eating Pop Tarts at their desk, writing about the Seahawks upending the Broncos. Many of them will get laid off in the future because of free media outlets. (If bloggers can help chase marketing executives to the tar pits, all power to them.) Right and wrong is pretty vague.

Unfortunately, the more evil you find, the grayer it gets.

Last month at PC Forum , eBay founder Pierre Omidyar took a jab at oil executives, doubting whether they "can sleep well at night."

The statement chafed me for two reasons. First, someone's got to do the dirty jobs. I met and interviewed a bunch of oil and gas executives last year . They weren't saints, but they weren't Visigoths, drunk on rampage, either. Companies like BP , General Electric and Shell Group, in fact, are funding research to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Why? They face public backlash and major legal headaches. Most oil companies are already having a an extremely difficult time recruiting engineers because of what they do. In his book "Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed," Jared Diamond actually points out that some of the multinational resources have cleaned up their act due to public and commercial pressures. Alternative energy will also likely turn into a profit center .

The other reason for my irritation: The conference was held in Southern California, hundreds of miles away from Silicon Valley. I didn't see Pierre's solar-powered jet pack in the parking lot.

Rather than delve into an endless argument about moral ambiguity--who has the time, anyway?--the best solution might be to simply develop Evil 2.0., essentially a synonym for uncool, or Evil with Splenda.

Google, therefore, could always be assured of doing no evil. It has a celebrity chef, after all, and employees ride Green Machines to meetings . How much farther away from Evil 2.0 can you get?

When a semi-impoverished anthropology professor claims that the Google Library Project to release copyrighted works onto the Net free of charge is just another example of the small guy being trampled by an evil corporation, the company would have a great reply. Free is not evil.

It's appropriate because it's getting really hard to find an Evil 1.0 company, at least in this country. I has been decades since an employer has reportedly hired private detectives to shoot at its own employees. Casting votes on behalf of your employees, a common practice way back when, doesn't work when huge numbers of people don't go to polls.

And, in the end, unhipness is something we can all agree needs to be rooted out.

 

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