Angela Tilby: Profiting from perversity

24 November 2017

EVERY week, it seems, there are new revelations about the profits made by the internet giants from various kinds of human perversity. Recent reports sug­gest that Google had made millions in advertising revenue from films that exploited young children.

I knew someone once who worked for Google in London. He had joined in its early days, and, with others like him, was attracted by Google’s unofficial mantra, “Don’t be evil.” Google presented itself as an enlightened employer, a “flat” anti-corporate organisation based on valuing the individual and encouraging collaborative working practices. Staff were urged to take care of their health, while the company provided ultra-flexible working hours with ever-open canteens and sports facilities. Employees were encouraged to see themselves as missionaries of universal knowledge and self-improvement.

The founding culture of Google reflected a myth of original innocence which is particularly prevalent in the United States, and manifests itself powerfully in Silicon Valley. There is idealism at the heart of much internet-based enterprise: a conviction that the world can be made better when people are free to live their dreams.

Such innocence is one of the trajectories of Enlightenment thinking particularly associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher and romantic who explicitly denounced the doctrine of Original Sin: “There is no original perversity in the human heart.” He would have understood people who today claim to be “spiritual, but not religious”, and he might well have endorsed Google’s original aspiration and its non-evil philosophy.

But, of course, it all goes wrong, as it always will. The ideology of innocence gives no protection in the real world. In the case of Google and the other internet giants, we have witnessed how a naïve trust in original goodness has morphed into an eye that is blind to social evil. Perhaps that corporately held belief in the purity of its founding ideals has also made Google and other internet giants reluctant to pay the taxes that others might regard as fair.

The underlying issue is theological. The doctrine of original innocence is no part of Christianity. While an over-emphasis on Original Sin might be crushing, it is not wise to disregard the evidence of human moral frailty. We are most prone to temptation when we believe that our ideology makes us virtuous. We are most likely to cause damage to others when we most fervently assert our own innocence. We most risk acting perversely when we assume that expressing our own impulses is a sacred right.

The doctrine of Original Sin — that we are prone to be self-centred in a way that is potentially harmful to others — is simple realism. It is why the Christian gospel begins in a call to repentance, and an announcement of the forgiveness of sins.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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