We imagine, for a second, that we are writing a movie script.This script features an international technology company run by a pair of charismatic billionaires. It’s omnipresent and yet difficult to define, with deep pockets and huge, high-profile projects that seem to bear only a passing resemblance to actual revenue streams. Most of these projects involve eerily sophisticated methods of finding out as much as possible about everyone on Earth. In recent months, this company has made headlines buying drones, home monitoring software, artificial intelligence, and a firm that makes military robots.
I haven’t quite filled in the blanks yet, but at some point in our movie the owner of this company definitely builds an unstoppable weaponized exoskeleton and goes rampaging through the streets of Mountain View.
The company in question is obviously Google, and I continue to wrack my brain trying to conceive of any explanation for any unifying theory of the company that doesn’t involve a supervillain at least somewhere. There’s something particularly dangerous about Google’s particular marriage of ubiquity, opacity and ambition—it’s always sort of unclear exactly what’s going on there, but we have the vague notion that it’s going to re-organize modern society.
Google’s general credo of innovation and disruption just feels like it works not in spite of being dangerous, but because of it: dream big, don’t worry about consequences, move fast, break things. It’s a cute idea for when we’re folding up cardboard boxes to make virtual reality goggles, but scale is important here. It’s not difficult to imagine the point at which that hacker mentality married to unlimited resources creates an actually terrifying scenario.
Recently, we discovered a piece of joke code uploaded to the Google website that instructs the killer robots of the future to refrain from killing co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. This from the company that appears to be trying to build a worldwide military hardware-linked artificial intelligence network that literally could not be any closer to the plot of the Terminator series. Ha ha! Good one, guys.
Of course, it’s this sort of sense of humor and general affability that’s so disarming about the tech world in general. Just look at how charming these folks can be! So not supervillain material. Google is particularly expert at using a sort of bright-eyed aw shucks optimism to mask the fact that its attempt to control all of the information on Earth can be a little concerning. They’re just trying to think about the world, and how it can be more efficient! Trying to make a better life for everyone. And yes, things may get broken along the way. You can’t have change without a little bit of pain! The old system doesn’t work, but we see a better future, a world where technology links all of humanity in one network, and oh my God you can’t write like this for more than two seconds without sounding like a supervillain.
We’ve developed a general faith that tech companies must be good, or at least, not that bad, because they have generally pleasing graphic design, make things that we like and increase our access to old episodes of Arrested Development. But compared to all others, we’re comically easy on this one industry. Remember when a billionaire plutocrat with questionable ethics bought the country’s most prominent political newspaper? Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, and everyone just sort of clapped. What if an oil tycoon with even half of Bezos’s money had done the same thing? The streets would have been flooded with protesters. Instead, we just wondered to what degree Bezos would be able to save newspapers.
Using the term “supervillain” is obvious hyperbole. It’s important to remember that Sergey Brin is probably not going to blow up the moon, build an army of super-clones, release nerve gas over Chicago or build a massive space laser (actually, a search for “Google Space Laser” brings up this patent here). And yet we look at all of our favorite fictional villains and we find an eery amount in common with some of the powerful men that run the tech world: charming, driven, passionate, obsessed with the relentless move towards a semi-utopian future so real we can almost touch it. “Don’t be evil,” Google says, and we tend to believe them. But that’s what makes any good villain work! A villain must believe they are doing good.
Put these people 100 years in the past, and history would call them robber barons. Imagine them 100 years in the future, and we’d call them the lords of a terrifying dystopia. The present is famously tricky. The vast amounts of information and power now concentrated in the hands of a very few super-rich begin to conjure images of evil octopi strangling the Earth. The world has a bit too much faith in the virtuous power of these new systems—we should remember that just because someone does not believe that they are evil does not mean that they aren’t evil, or in a more generous appraisal, are not at the very least capable of evil. Remember, Lex Luthor got elected president.
David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, IGN.com, Wired and more. Follow him on Twitter.