Sunday, February 10, 2013

Do No Harm

This is not the slogan popularized by Google, "Do no evil." That was an exuberant exhortation by an up and coming Google engineer, Paul Buchheit, head of the budding Gmail project, sometime around the millenium, when Google was young and innocent.

Rather, it is a shortened version of the peroration in the Hippocratic Oath:

I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel...
More to the point, Book One of the Epidemics, section 2, paragraph 4, states that the physician who treats a disease must:

... be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future- must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.
Hippocrates, and the doctors of the Hippocratic School of Medicine, were from the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.. They lived during the Golden Age of Greece, when the Persian threat had been defeated, and Athens, under Pericles, turned its efforts to fostering knowledge and culture. Instead of war, Athens' efforts turned to the construction of the buildings of the Acropolis, including the Parthenon.

Hippocrates and his followers believed that disease had natural causes and was not a result of the disfavor of the gods. In the seven books of the Epidemics, the followers of Hippocrates reported on outbreak of different diseases in Greece. Their reports were always factual and objective. For instance Book One begins with a description of the weather that lead to an outbreak of disease in "Thasus, early in autumn, [where] the winter suddenly set in rainy before the usual time, with much northerly and southerly winds."

Google's version of "Do no harm" was issued in an attempt to wear the white hat, to be less commercial and serve the public good. In its prospectus, before its public offering in 2004, Google explained:

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...

Since then, Google has grown into a behemoth that rivals Standard Oil in its heyday, the early 20th century. A hundred years later, Google will have to determine if it can combine profit with social responsibility. Check out its corporate philosophy, and one sees that the do no evil manifesto is still proudly stated. See, About Google, Company, What we believe.

Paul Buchheit's Gmail has come a long way, and Blogger, which is an off-shoot of Gmail, has become an open platform for men and women, old and young to write, plead, pontificate, and yes, even bloviate.

Do no evil, do no harm. Either way, it is a good way to live.

No comments:

Post a Comment