Added On: Friday, October 26, 2007

Fellowship Of The Ring

Burlingame, Calif. -

Sam's Grill, in downtown San Francisco, is a bit like a time machine. It sits on a corner, just off busy Bush Street, where buses and motorcycles and Priuses vie for road space, pedestrians scream into their cellphones and neon signs blink. Once through the heavy wooden doors of Sam’s, the light seems a bit softer, the daily commotion muffled by the curious rabbit-warren architecture of the place. Every table is cloistered in its own, wood-paneled nook. It's a bit like dining in a private car on a train.

Last week, I joined my mother-in-law and 12 of her college friends at Sam's to celebrate their 60th college reunion. The boisterous octogenarians had traveled from various corners of Canada for the event. They retold stories of mischievous classmates and dour professors, of picnics in the snow and even of a peculiar old horse.

One, Lloyd Rodway, who sports a dapper silver mustache, leaned across the table toward me. "Do you know what this ring is?" he asked. He stretched out his right hand on which he wore a dull gray band on his little finger. He took it off and handed it to me.
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It was a simple gray metal ring, roughly faceted.

"It’s an iron ring," Rodway said. I handed it back, and he slipped it back on his finger. "When I became an engineer, I took part in the 'Kipling ritual.' I promised to use my engineering skills to the best of my ability to help the rest of the world."

"Like the Hippocratic oath?" I asked.

"Just like that," he answered.

It turns out that in the early 1920s, seven of the past presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada got together in Montreal and considered how to encourage Canadian engineers to feel closer, part of a special guild. One offered to ask his friend, British writer Rudyard Kipling, to draft an appropriate oath.

Kipling was charmed by the idea. In 1923, he delivered "The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer," with the caveat that it remain an exclusively Canadian affair. Even today, the ritual is intensely private--never recorded and only attended by other ring wearers. The ceremony calls for the inductee to lay a hand on an iron ring and pledge to use his or her knowledge to serve society.

Kipling even got involved with designing the ring itself: "It is rough as the mind of the young. It is not smoothed at the edges, any more than the character of the young. It is hand-hammered all around, and the young have their hammerings coming to them. It has neither beginning nor end, any more than the work of an Engineer, or as we know Space itself. It will cut into a gold ring if worn next to it: thus showing that one had better keep one's money-getting quite separate."

Since the first ring ceremony in 1925, exactly 312,956 Canadian engineers have joined the fellowship of the ring. Malcolm McGrath, who helps administer the program at the University of Toronto, says that students eagerly anticipate the ceremony, even dropping into his office to try on rings. Some 13,000 Canadians took the ring last year. (In the early 1970s, engineers in Ohio started a similar group inspired by the Canadian rites. About 10,000 American engineers join annually.)

An iron ring won’t get anyone a job; it doesn’t convey any accreditation (although you have to have graduated from recognized programs to qualify). But it has genuine meaning: Ring wearers try to do the right thing.

That thirst for purpose reminded me of the famous letter written by Google's (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ) co-founders when they registered their company for an initial public offering in April 2004. The starting principle of Google, wrote Sergey Brin and Larry Page, was, "Don’t be evil."

"We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served--as shareholders and in all other ways--by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains," wrote Google's founders. "We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place. With our products, Google connects people and information all around the world for free."

But can a corporate pledge ever be as intimate or as genuine as a personal vow?

The most contemporary technology is intensely personal: We carry our own music library in our pocket, our work life on a laptop or PDA, our most important connections burned into our cellphones.

It's nice that Google has adopted an ethical pose--though precisely what it means for a company to "do no evil" becomes hazier the bigger and more complex a corporation becomes.

Critics of Google’s policies in China argued that the company tacitly backed evil by yielding to censorship demands by that country’s central government. Privacy advocates are growing leery of Google as it makes readily available Web pictures so detailed that you can see who has snuck out of work for a coffee break. Newspapers, starting with The Wall Street Journal, may even grouse that Google's adroit control of Web advertising has crippled the press's ability to remain financially independent--and so may eventually hurt the free flow of information.

I'm not sure I know what it means for a company to "not be evil." When individuals decide to try to use their talents to improve the world, they can make a difference.

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