Doing Evil

switchbacks on the Kaibab Trail
“Descent” – The Kaibab Trail in The Grand Canyon – photo/nick 01/14

Like the diabolical twists and turns on the descent to the dark recesses of The Grand Canyon, Machiavelli’s The Prince is a tour de force of pretzel logic exposing such strange insights into human nature that it completely upends the common understanding of the way things are. But the book is also filled with so many contradictions that disagreement still reigns over its true meaning. The basic idea is that to do good, it’s often necessary to do evil.

People who work in information technology regard their work as a force for good and believe they’re part of something that makes life better. Information technology cuts across every industry, every business, and every person on the planet. It’s special. Few of us think doing evil can produce good but ethical hacking is just one example among many that challenge that notion. When tech companies, newspapers, and government agencies use I/T to get at private information to dispense a societal benefit we are all returned to 16th century Italy to study the Florentine Master of insoluble problems surrounding virtue. E.g., one tech company has the anti-Machiavellian motto, “Don’t do evil” to which they have found it impossible to adhere. And none of us are innocent—we’re all irreparably conflicted by the fact this company owns technology that is the sine qua non of the Web which we all use and which makes life better for 7 billion people.

The Web, social media, and the cloud present their own set of strange insights into human nature that often upend the common sense of what’s good and what’s evil. We’re still working through the protocols that protect privacy and build trust but we’re not there yet. It’s complicated. The dark thoughts of Machiavelli’s century led to The Enlightenment in the next, so there’s hope but…

For now, we’re living in Machiavellian times.

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