How to Tell if a Web Company Is Evil
I’m sick of companies cherry picking specific features to explain how they help people. Specific features will always exist, and the existence of them ruins the point. The big question is, is it really the purpose of the company to help people, or is helping people an occasional externality of other goals they are trying to achieve? It’s hard to give someone credit for a positive action that was done for a malicious or unrelated purpose.
Here’s an Altruism/Power Ven Diagram. On the left are decisions a company makes to help people, on the right are decisions that give them power. Figuring out the intentions of a company may have little to do with how much they are helping people, because that intersection may be quite large. The bigger question is how they pay attention to the other parts of the diagram.
If a company were optimizing for people, it’s actions may look like this.
If a company optimized for its corporate shareholders, it’s actions would be here.
The big question is which of these two above graphs better represents the actions of a company, not how much there is of an intersection to show to the press. Here’s a graph of what I see as being decisions in each sector, you can decide for yourself what the aims of your favorite web companies may be.
Doesn’t Power Eventually Help Users?
This is the main argument from all power grabbers, ever. That “with more resources, we can do more good,” so decisions to increase power eventually do help users. While this can be used to justify almost any action, there does exist the fact that without power even the most idealistic or altruistic groups will not succeed. It also makes sense that those in power will be those optimized to get power over all other things. It may be that most existing companies (organizations, really) only exist to gain power, where the argument is that the power will eventually be (and occasionally is) used for the goals of these organizations (which are supposedly things other than pure shareholder value). But here, how do you identify groups with good intentions from the rest? From the outside view, they look almost exactly the same, because they are optimizing for power whenever options are presented. It is true that trade-offs need to be made, but for them to be made well there should be some greater model and rigorous attention to the tradeoffs. Could companies sponsor studies on how to optimize the numeric trade-offs between short term power grabs and long term civilian value? It may be hard, but given that these organizations sometimes seem to actually care (or want to care) about value to society, it probably wouldn’t cost much compared to other things they are doing.
The Economic Near-Ideal
Of course, one solution would be to create companies where there are few trade-offs. One can argue that companies like 10gen have nice models where they very well align their own power increases with societal benefit.
Here companies aren’t defined by how good they are trying to be, but by how much their selfish actions are correlated with altruistic ones. Here the decision is much more about deciding what kind of company to make (and for outsiders, deciding rules and publicity), then deciding what features to implement. Yet it also may mean that the more altruistic people will favor industries where this correlation is high, leaving other industries as easy prey for less idealistic people.