This direction is inevitable, thanks to a simple phenomenon: the proliferation of ever-more-powerful search capabilities and the rapid disappearance of whatever semblance of privacy we once had. We are experiencing a top-down, bottom-up convergence of forces that compel us to just be better people.
The top-down is simple: companies that are built around a core purpose and values, with a motive beyond profit, have always, over time, outperformed companies that aren't. Ben & Jerry's, Whole Foods, Zappos... if you lead with love, love for what you do and the people for whom you do it, profits often follow. These companies don't falter until the moment their focus shifts from what they can do for their community to what their community can do for them (to paraphrase a President).
That's my hippie side talking. Here's the bottom-up reality, though: if you don't lead with love, if you don't act with decency and integrity, if you think you can contribute 3% of EBITDA or whatever and make up for whatever bad behavior generated that EBITDA in the first place, you will be found out, and you will be punished by the market.
Take Enron. Take Sigg. Take Nestle. The message from the market is clear: you deceive or betray your public, you pay.
These forces have always been in effect, but here's what's different: thanks to search, you can no longer conduct your affairs in secret. Thanks to social, news about dodgy practices can spread like wildfire. Thanks to connectivity and digital empowerment, it is simply untenable for companies not to be socially conscious.
The degree to which we've lost control of information is extraordinary and growing. Just yesterday, Google announced the purchase of Plink, a visual search engine, thereby furthering the search giant's Google Goggles efforts. Passing by an interesting building on your trip to Venice? Snap a shot on your cell phone and run the search - no doubt you'll find out the name of the building and its entire history in moments.
Technology like this is great for buildings, as well as art, wine, books and logos -- but what about people? It's not too hard to imagine a scenario where you can snap a photo of someone, without knowing who they are, and find out their entire history in moments. Where you're known as soon as one person in the matrix tags you, rendering opt-out effectively meaningless. Where the only choice is to behave, not as if Big Brother were watching, but as if everyone you've ever loved, everyone whose respect you ever wanted to earn, every teacher and child and grandma were waiting to see what you were going to do.
I remember watching Bill Clinton on television during the Lewinsky affair. He was asked why he lied about it, and his response seemed spontaneously genuine. He said he did what we all do when we're doing something we know we're not supposed to be doing; namely, he tried to do it when nobody was looking.
Today, everyone is looking. So has transparency has forced our hand? Are companies growing more inclined to act for the good of humanity? Let's hope so. If there's nowhere to hide, maybe the only option left to us is to become accountable.
I'd really love to hear your thoughts on this one. Let me know in the comments or via @kcolbin.