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Philosophy and Search: The Big Three Founders and the Philosophers

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Reading the book "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes" last week made me look at what we know about the philosophies of the founders of the Big Three -- Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft (if my conclusions are wrong, feel free to take me to dinner and rectify the situation, guys).

Quotes for comparative purposes have been taken from various news stories and videos of speeches they have given over the years.

Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page

Brin, in an interview with an Israeli news service, said (among many insightful things) that in the future, with the benefit of computers and mobile devices, you "will see the world's knowledge as an extension of your own knowledge" -- an almost Descartian philosophy. "I Google, therefore I am."

Meanwhile, Page gave some personal insights at the University of Michigan commencement this year, as well as some advice to the graduates that may reflect his past philosophical reading. "How do you change the world?" he asked the crowd rhetorically. "Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting," he answered.

This, perhaps, echoes a little Hobbes who saw the world before the Industrial Revolution as "nasty, brutish and short" and that the "only escape is by entering into contracts with each other -- mutually beneficial agreements to surrender our individual interests in order to achieve the advantages of security that only a social existence can provide."

But then again, Sigmund Freud may have influenced him when he said, "sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming" -- something the pair obviously have done.

The duo that gave us "Do No Evil" may also have read "Beyond Good and Evil" by Friedrich Nietzsche. In this instance, "evil" is given an interesting interpretation, which may give insight into the inside joke of this mantra:

"Good" initially and properly designated only the right of those individuals with social and political power to live their lives by sheer force of will. But a "priestly" caste, motivated by their resentment of their natural superiors, generated a corrupt alternative that would appeal to "the herd" of less capable persons, turning values inside-out. In the "slave morality" endorsed by religious establishments, Nietzsche argued, forceful action which should be admired gets labelled as "evil," while the cowardly tendency to think through everything in advance is transformed into the supposed virtue of prudence.

Hopefully, that wasn't their reference.

Yahoo's Jerry Yang and David Filo

Filo is notoriously media shy. However, the few times he's been interviewed in his position as overseer of technology, the importance of open source and integrating has been a big theme.

"The company has embraced open pretty much throughout the entire thing. It is very important to us," he has stated.

This outlook mirrors the universal brotherhood of man as it appears in the works of classical Greek and Roman philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. So, in essence, he is old school.

The power of community was a constant topic of the early philosophers and is also the argument for open source. Another interesting fact: Filo introduced Page and Brin to Silicon Graphics for their server space and invested in the company.

Yang, who has been the external face of Yahoo, is more quotable and gives more of his worldview. From his centrist views, "...we're focused on what we do best -- being the center of people's online lives," to "At Yahoo we want to be most essential starting point for your life," and "...take the complexity of the Web and simplify your life through very powerful technologies," Yang could have been grabbing from one of Plato's works. Plato spent most of his career discussing what would be needed for a Utopian community.

"The Republic is Plato's statement of what the ideally best city is; the Laws, on the other hand, describes the city that would be best, given less optimistic assumptions about what human nature is capable of," according to Stanford University Online. While Yahoo and Google foster an air of communal happiness, Yahoo is the older company and would be the more appropriate fit in search lineage.

Microsoft's Bill Gates

Finally, someone who loves to talk about everything. Gates has never been accused of being reticent. He has an aggressive and creative approach to his business.

Philosophically, he aligns well with Sun Tzu, the author of "The Art of War." Some of Gates' quotes:

  • "In this business, by the time you realize you're in trouble, it's too late to save yourself. Unless you're running scared all the time, you're gone."

  • "The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency."

  • "The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow."

  • "Whether it's Google or Apple or free software, we've got some fantastic competitors and it keeps us on our toes."

These quotes can be linked to such chapters from Tzu as:

  • Tactical Dispositions, which covers the importance of defending your ground before you expand and how recognizing the right opportunities is better than creating them.

  • Waging War, which details the economics of war, making the right moves leads to success and eliminating competition and conflict."

  • Attack by Stratagem, which discusses the strength comes from unity as opposed to size, and the ingredients you need to succeed in any war."

  • The Use of Spies, in which Sun Tzu noted: "what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge."

Hope this was as amusing to read as it was to write. Add your thoughts in the comments.


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