The most famous motto in Silicon Valley, "Don't Be Evil," was conceived in 2000 by Paul Buchheit, Google employee #23. When the company went public, in 2004, the slogan was front-loaded directly into the founder's statement, where it became synonymous with Google's charter. For the last decade, the search giant has been defined by its catchy, self-stated prerogative, even as the allegations that it often violated its own credo piled up.
Yesterday, Google announced that it was transforming into Alphabet, an umbrella corporation that would serve as parent company to Google, Inc, which would continue to run the core search engine business, but alongside a raft of other subsidiaries, too. In CEO Larry Page's "meet Alphabet" blog post, "Don't Be Evil" was nowhere to be found.
Though scholars and the tech press have declared the slogan dead or meaningless many times before, this is the clearest sign yet that the company's leadership actually agrees. Whether it was a pointed strategic decision or merely a necessary omission that reflects the ever-growing sprawl of the company, there was no mention of good or evil in Alphabet's rollout.
I think that's telling: There's a generation that came of age enthralled with Google, myself among them, who bought its "Don't Be Evil" line hook and sinker—that generation most ardently follows the company's moves, includes its biggest fans, and, importantly, whose reporters cover its dealings in the tech press. Even if we've become more disillusioned with its moves over the years—the defense contracts, the privacy violations—there was still some mythic quality bound up in Google's own willingness to maintain the mission statement.
By finally becoming Alphabet, a company in which just one letter is for Google, the search giant seems to be jettisoning its own slogan-deep commitment to being a force for good in the world. And by dropping any nods to a moral compass, Google appears to have tacitly concluded the era in it encouraged the public to conceive of its enterprise as distinctly "not evil."
Because what is Alphabet, really? It's another nameless, faceless, boring umbrella company that will look and operate like any number of other boring omnicorps. Alphabet is the shattering of Google's aspirational mythos into a bland, many-tentacled Voltron.
Legal experts had implored Google to drop the "Don't Be Evil" bit for years, on the grounds that it originally applied mostly to search, and was no longer relevant—now the sentiment is gone from its public-facing corporate ambitions altogether.
Let's not kid ourselves; Google has always been about making money. Even from the beginning, while it was still private, there was evidence that the company's corporate culture was uncomfortable with the slogan. Here, according to Buchheit, is its origin story:
"I was sitting there trying to think of something that would be really different and not one of these usual 'strive for excellence' type of statements. I also wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out," he told Jessica Livingston for her 2007 book, Founders at Work. "It just sort of occurred to me that 'don't be evil' is kind of funny. It's also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent."
"But the real fun of it was that people get a little uncomfortable with anything different, so throughout the meeting, the person running it kept trying to push 'don't be evil' to the bottom of the list. But this other guy, Amit Patel, and I kept kind of forcing them to put it up there. And because we wouldn't let it fall off the list, it made it onto the final set and took on a life of its own from there. Amit started writing it down all over the building, on whiteboards everywhere. It's the only value that anyone is aware of, right?"
"Don't Be Evil" was picked up by Page and Brin, and enshrined into company directive. Here's how it was described in that founder's letter: "Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company."
It was actually binding and part of the company's code, they said in an interview with Playboy. They also went to great lengths to affirm that the second part of not being evil was to actively do good.
So far, anyway, all talk of altruism has been occluded from the launch of the shiny, bland-sounding, interest-nullifying Alphabet. I've reached out to Google—or, Alphabet, I guess—twice, and have not received a reply as to whether the slogan will be reinstated at the new pan-technology company or not.
None of this is to say the company formerly known as Google is about to start building autonomous smart bombs. But "evil" lives on a sliding scale, and will make navigating its future-projects easier to defend against a wary press. However, Alphabet (not Google) is now a defense contractor. Alphabet (not Google) will oversee the company that is trying to make rich old white men immortal. Alphabet will fly Wing, the drone company that is bound to be controversial, and the driverless car division that creeps people out.
Whatever the actual motives, financial, political, or legal—see our explainer on the subject for some insight—Alphabet né Google is confounding our ability to maintain a cohesive narrative about the company. That may help relax its purported commitment to altruism, to help Alphabet dodge questions and allegations from tech reporters who hold it to a higher standard than, say, Exxon or GE. It may help do little at all but retire a slogan some will no doubt look back and call naive.
Right now, at least, Alphabet isn't pledging to not be evil. It isn't pledging to be good. Like its products and its trademark Google search, for better or for worse, Alphabet will just be everywhere.