DALL-E 3 generated image: An abstract illustration capturing the evolution of Google's corporate ethos from 'Don't Be Evil' to a more complex understanding of DEIA.

“Don’t Be Evil”

A 250-300-word discussion post I made today, assessing Google’s DEIA efforts for Business 101 class. I may have slightly over-run the word-count limit.

I remember using Google Search for the first time, after hearing about how much better it was than the other search engines of the time. Back then, the best search engines were human-curated resources. Google Search burst on the scene with the corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil“, and they seemed to usher in a world where corporate power and human ethics could work hand-in-hand to bring about a better world.

Today’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility programs take to the next level “Don’t Be Evil”, and try to define what “Do the Right Thing” means. Like Mookie in Spike Lee’s joint by the same name found out, Google found out that doing the right thing isn’t as easy as saying so.

I read an interesting article this morning, on why ads don’t work the way we think they do. The traditional model is that advertising works by appealing to our emotions, but the writer suggests that instead advertising imbues “cultural imprinting”. That is, advertising presents cultural cues  that help people understand the purpose of the product, they change “the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product”. Which (in my understanding) is to say that advertising is part of the marketing process in that it helps customers find appropriate uses for the product, and where they do not currently exist, advertising creates social situations where the product appeals: far more than mere emotional manipulation, it is cultural manipulation.

All of this information helps me understand Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility initiatives as not directives but aspirations. They seek to create a culture that respects and values diversity, even where that culture doesn’t currently exist, or only aspires to exist.

Aspirational culture is the culture we desire to live in but do not currently live in. There would be no need for DEIA programs if we already lived in a culture that valued and appreciated the benefits of DEIA programs.

Google has failed often in its attempts to create a “world where everyone belongs,” and “anything is possible.” Failed miserably.

If one looks only at DEIA programs success or failure by counting the ways they have failed, it is easy to come to the cynical conclusion that Google has failed not only in their attempts to not “be evil”, but also in their attempts to “do the right thing”.

But instead, if we look to Google’s (and any other company’s) DEIA initiatives as attempts to create cultures where those values are respected and valued, it is less easy to dismiss the work. Google’s reports indeed show growth (“As of 2021, we’ve reached our goal of improving leadership representation of Black+, Latino+, and Native American+ Googlers by 30%, and we’re on track to double Black+ representation throughout our U.S. offices by 2025.”) and their own self-assessments do not seem to highlight the areas where they have failed to meet their goals.

This is a serious defect in many DEIA programs that highlight successes but are silent about missed goals and metrics. If there were few women, LGBT+ and BIPoC Googlers to begin with, a “30% growth rate” and a “doubling by 2025” sounds great and does the job of helping to create a culture that values growth in social metrics (as opposed to financial or production metrics that are signs of a healthy business). They also tell us little about the lives of minority Googlers inside the corporation: are they happy, do they feel respected? We hope they are, but we are given no metrics with which to independently judge.

If we judge DEIA initiatives for their metrics, it’s easy to say that Google has failed. Perhaps if DEIA was as easy as refactoring an assembly line for enhanced productivity, but in my experience, it is not only a more difficult problem, but it is in an entirely different class of problems to solve. As Karina Govindji, Senior Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for EMEA, LATAM, and Canada at Google says in the 2021 Annual Report on Hiring, “This work is not a one and done. It’s not a tick-box exercise. And there is no silver bullet … We know we’ve made some good progress, but we also know that there is so much more work to do.”

As Dr. King often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”