Weird connections in social enterprise: Playboy, drugs and Google.org

The announcement that Google.org is going to concentrate on programs 'that make the most of Google's strengths in technology and information" has been the subject of some criticism, most notably Siva Vaidhyanathan's assertion that it means that "the habits and ideology of the company will lead the philanthropy rather than the needs of the communities or the planet."

Personally, I think the shift in strategy was long overdue. Google has far more to offer the do-gooding world than cash; it offers expertise and experience that are most effectively applied to areas of need that the company already knows reasonably well. One could argue, a la Jurgen Habermas, that Google's action is just one more example of the colonization of the lifeworld by commerce, but such a critique glosses over the degree to which relations of exchange are embedded in civil society.

Rather than dismiss the move as an advance for creeping commodified technocracy, we'd do better to assess Google.org in relation to other companies that have aligned their corporate interests with their charitable outreach. Pfizer is an obvious example--its CSR programs and The Pfizer Foundation merit careful study--but perhaps the most intriguing analogy is the The Playboy Foundation, the for-profit philanthropy within Playboy that supports free speech and documentaries promoting social change.