Sometimes, I forget a web larger than the world-wide web exists. You know the one I’m talking about. Nature, that place where every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That place where a butterfly flaps its wings in Argentina and Japan suffers a tsunami. To be honest, we are so interconnected in nature, that sometimes, I shudder to touch a toe to the ground for fear of unintended consequences.
When my mother walked through her neighborhood one day, years ago, still hale and hearty at 70, she came upon a woman bent over a pair of crutches. With difficulty, she was dragging a sack of garbage behind her. Mother rushed forward, as most people would, introduced herself as a neighbor, and offered to dump the sack for her. Relieved, the woman thanked her and the two parted on good terms.
Three days later, the woman, still on crutches, banged on mother’s door. “My trash has been sitting on the back porch. Why haven’t you dumped it?” Nonplussed, my mother explained she’d intended no permanent commitment. The response annoyed the neighbor further and for a time they exchanged words. Finally, when the heat drained from them, they parted. All traces of their former good will had dissipated. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
That saying applies to tech giants as well as to humble folk. Once young disrupters, these entrepreneurs intended to create a worldwide neighborhood where everyone was equal; they intended to advance the cause of science; they intended to put books inexpensively into people’s hands. But when money and power coalesce around a good intention, that good intention risks being corrupted.
Much has changed on the world-wide web, since those early innovators began their disruption. Still, I suspect they continue to see themselves as patron saints of the masses. The masses, I suspect, may not agree. What they are likely to see is the tarnished image of a Dorian Gray. (Click) When Elan Musk (Click), for example, stepped forward to help in Thailand’s cave crisis (Click), he laid waste to his image when he attacked one of its heroes. (Click) Jeff Bezos (Click), once a simple book dealer and now the world’s richest man, finds himself facing charges that he exploits his employees with poor wages and working conditions. (Click) As for the tech giants, each of them rich as Croesus, they are guilty in aggregate of conspiring to make vassals of their workers. (Click)
Having good intentions isn’t enough in life. After all, southern plantation owners only wanted to supply cheap cotton. The challenge to each of us in our interconnected world is to anticipate what evil lurks within good intentions. If we find a flaw, no matter how noble the purpose, we must root it out. The moment we feel righteous about an idea or a cause, we have already lost our way.