Values are Features

Today Google announced that it gave 1.5 Million Dollars to Code for America, an organization I helped to start and still advise, and another undisclosed grant to the most effective Open Government advocate in the United States, Carl Malamud. Beyond my own area of work, they spent $11.5 Million in grants to flight slavery, supported girls education and STEM classes, and all in all gave over 115 Million Dollars to good, smart social causes. Having dealt with the grant-givers over at Google a few times, they’ve got a tight due-diligence and evaluation process – they’re thoughtful about who they give their money to and the impact that their dollars have.

While some naysayers say Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” credo has all but disappeared, I’d encourage you to think about what technology company invests more in “good” than Google. Besides the grants, Google’s Summer of Code helps to advance open-source projects that advance our entire industry. They line up volunteers to contribute to socially meaningful open-source projects like the ones from Sunlight Labs. They give their apps for free to non-profits to educational organizations. Their engineers have the freedom to solve some big problems, too: the self-driving car isn’t just neat technology, it has the capacity to save thousands of lives.

The point of this post isn’t to convince you that Google is great, but rather to alert you to the striking lack of social involvement from other large technology companies. What other technology company does this? Microsoft comes close, but while the Gates Foundation is certainly doing amazing work, that’s Bill Gates, not Microsoft. Microsoft’s Office is available to non-profits for a $31 administrative fee plus shipping and handling and they definitely focus primarily on giving software grants, not straight out financial support for an organization’s hard work. It’s a commendable effort.

Then there’s Apple. Despite being worth nearly 60% more than Google, Apple makes no meaningful social contributions besides their product. Apple has no “summer of code” equivalent despite leveraging a ton of open source for iOS and OS X. They have no iWork for Education. They tried quietly, at best,to allow customers to donate their old iPads to Teach for America but I find no trace of the program on now.

“So what, their iPhone is making meaningful social contributions on its own!” you might argue. And it’s a good point – putting the printing press in the hands of millions is a worthy, and admirable goal. But Google’s managed to do that, plus give smart, good grants to organizations with a track record of success. The closest thing Apple has to giving back to the community is an employee gift matching program, while at the same time, people are committing suicide making the iPhone.

Google’s grants got me thinking. I’m sitting at my desk looking at my iPhone and wondering – would I rather have Siri the wacky speech assistant, or would I rather have less human trafficking? Ideally, I’d like to have both. I love my Apple products. The Information Diet was written with Pages on a MacBook air usually tethered to my iPhone whilst listening to music in iTunes. But with more operating cash than the United States Treasury, Apple is giving less back to society than ExxonMobile. Something’s not right about that.

So go ahead and call me an Apple hater or Google fanboy. I’m certainly biased – Google’s giving lots of money to organizations run by friends of mine. But for me, values are a feature and I think it’s time we started incorporating these kinds of values and actions into our product decisions. We do it in the world of food – with organic foods, fair-trade, and local foods. Why don’t we do it with technology?

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