The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Close encounters of the corporate kind

Not sure I agree with all of this, but it made my brain zap and crackle—Charlie Stross takes the “if corporations were people, they would be really, really awful people” argument and plays with it a bit:

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

And I like the last line—you could call it the punchline—a lot. It reframes the whole thing in a way that’s weird, fun, and a bit unsettling.


Yeah, I kept reading this and thinking, “What if the Singularity already happened?” “What if our ideas about what constitutes intelligence render us incapable of recognising it when it appears?”

How do bacteria revolt against the rise of humans? They don’t. They just go on, trying to survive in a new environment that’s changed for various reasons that they don’t quite understand.

Imagine. Maybe corporations are already in communication with some higher galactic intelligence, first contact has already happened and WE WILL NEVER KNOW. We’ll just wonder why our environment seems to have gotten inexplicably ___er.

The other irony here is that traditional economics assumes that individuals/households do make their decisions the way that corporations do — especially that line about pursuing “growth, profitability, and pain avoidance.”

Riffing on my Paterson-inspired “every man is a city” idea, you could also say that every man (and woman) is a corporation — or at least there are moments where we act, think, and behave as if we were a corporation, rather than an individual, head of household, or leader of a polity.

Think about every time you’ve done or said or avoided saying or avoided doing something principally because of the potentially consequences for your potential or future bottom-line, either as an individual or for the group you represent (to the extent that these interests are identified). Think about every time you’ve thought in all seriousness about developing, publicizing, or defending your “brand.” You’ve shifted your reference. You’ve become corporate being.

So it’s not that corporations are somehow a different form of life from us. They’re part of our “posthuman” evolution. And in fact, you could probably make a better case that the evolution and organization of the corporation as a mode of life in conjunction with the development of technology has more to do with our transformation as a species than the incorporation of new technology alone.

sorry, i’ve had zombies on the brain recently, but i think zombies are a more apt description for certain corporations. corporations are hungry (with profits standing in for brains), and they can die and be brought back to life without suffering any consequences of what they did in their previous life. through the bankruptcy process, they can continue on with the profit-making bits, while jettisoning all of the human elements and obligations that would hold them back (i.e. employee pensions, the full scale of a massive class action payout for defective products).

Aliens? For millennia we have lived with organizations that are “hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers” who subordinate their goals (willingly or not) to the collective. We call them nations, or states.

In this decade, corporations have encroached upon nation-states as the Earth’s dominant organizational structure. In 2000, 51 of the world’s 100 largest corporate entities were corporations, 49 were countries. In 2005, 63% of the 150 largest global economic enterprises were corporations.

Stross mentions that corporations lack “patriotic loyalty,” because they are not human, and have become multi-national. But they do inspire (or demand) their own “corporate loyalty.”

Science fiction often posits the corporation as ruling power — and it’s usually subtextually castigated, such as Aliens’ Weyland-Yutani or Resident Evil’s Umbrella.

Are nations better than corporations? Many countries today have idealistic goals and underlying principles, but so do many corporations (“Do no evil”). Communism has failed. In the past (and still today, in some places) nation-states were built solely by force of royalty, armies or dictators, with no other purpose for being.

When Earth makes contact with another planet, who will represent us? One nation (the US?) or one company?

This is why Aliens is such a good movie. There are two things that distinguish the humans from the aliens they hunt/flee from — their mastery of technology and their corporate willingness to screw one another over for a buck.

The aliens are biologically perfect and their insect-like solidarity is total. They don’t need the technology the humans have (even if they’re intelligent enough to manipulate it). The corporation wants to weaponize them.

It’s also human beings’ ability to detach themselves from corporations (through empathic, family-like fellow-feeling) and technology (quite literally, in the case of Ripley being able to climb out of the exoskeleton and the alien queen pulling off her shoe rather than her leg) that ultimately helps them overcome. So it’s a complex message.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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