April 13, 2006 6:22 AM PDT

Perspective: In defense of evil

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In defense of evil
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.

Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas. He has worked as an attorney, travel writer and sidewalk hawker for a time share resort, among other occupations.

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It seems to me that much of what is labeled evil these days is just capitalism. Shouldn't evil be limited to committing crimes, taking away or limiting rights, or removing any other choice for the product or service involved?
Some folks seem to want all the good results of capitalism but none of the bad. On the other hand, there seems to be a desire for socialism but ignorance of its flaws.
Posted by soldack (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
In defense of thought
Attempting to conflate such disparate issues only serves to further confuse the subject(s).

When the only common thread is things-that-have-been-labeled-evil-by-somebody, it should be no surprise that genetically modified food, which makes it possible to feed [more] impoverished people, is compared to businesses with anticomepetitive practices, which only hurt people.

If a moment could be spared to discuss any one of these separate issues, we might have learned why DRM presents a fundamentally flawed security model, or something about potential loopholes in our implementation of capitalism.

Instead, the article implies that we shouldn't care about the real evils in the world, simply because some people may have been overzealous with a word.

I submit that caring about an issue should be reason to learn more about it, instead of being distracted by those that don't care.
Posted by Skiggety (1 comment )
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GMO Stupid Comment
In regard to your foolish comment "Genetically modified foods are evil, though farmers and scientists admit that they lead to a reduction of chemical pesticides."

Organic and natural methods of raising food ALSO reduce chemical pesticiddes but it human-labor intensive. You really think GMO (Genetically Modified Foods" are NOT evil cause they are so TWEAKED they do not always need chemicals for development? Dude, look up "Round-Up Ready Soybean" and really understand whats going on here!
Posted by jmanico (55 comments )
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I can't be "good" unless
There are people out there I can point to and say "Now That guy, he is evil".

If not for people out there doing really bad things I think most of the population would become really depressed or something.

This is part of the reason people like Jerry Springer. The low lifes on that show allow people to redraw their metric.

You have people selling drugs out of their place in the projects watching the show saying "Wow, those people are such scum."

People like to judge others on their own strengths, and when that fails, watch Springer or hate on MS.

Nothing like some good old fashioned MS bashing to help me wake up in the morning feeling good about myself.
Posted by Dachi (797 comments )
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Evil 2.0
Evil 2.0 seems to be the epitome of a fundamantal law of the universe and everything in it. Change. "The only constanst in the Universe is Change". Case in point:

The Oil & Gas companies are raking in record profits because the supply of oil is changing.

The rash of Patent disputes lawsuits that have cropped up are the result of changing business models. Create a patent, never use it, wait for somebody to unknowly use it, then sue like hell.

The EFF and the ACLU are screaming bloody murder about freedom of speech and civil rights on the web. This is forward change from traditional Print & TV Media. In some cases, laws that exist in the Print/TV world, do exist or cannot extend to the Web. Congress is in the works to change that.

Big Media is watered down because they have extended themslves in other Industries or have been purchased and merged with other companies in other industries to the extent that their are few "original" media comapnies left. That swallows up the radical, free thinking, act on your gut journalist.

Change. Ironically, it is the only constant in the Universe.
Posted by ree_ree2702 (5 comments )
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