Sunday, November 21, 2010

Speculation: The corporate ecosystem and American stasis

To speculate is to "form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence" [1]. My speculation tagged posts are things I suspect are true - even though I know I lack evidence. This is one of them.

For some years [2] I have been playing with a speculation that large publicly traded corporations [1], independent of their managers, are self-sustaining super-organisms of commerce-space that, like biological organisms, can change their (legal, regulatory and cultural ecosystem) to their peculiar tastes. I call this entity AmoebaCorp; I imagine it oozing and absorbing in an abstract "space" where individual humans are invisible atoms.

Over the last two hundred years of American history corporate power and influence has waxed and waned. Within the past year the corporate entity reversed a small transient setback and completed a dramatic transformation of its political ecosystem. The power of AmoebaCorp is higher than average, perhaps as high as it has ever been. The power of individuals, both the few that are strong and the many that are weak, has been commensurately reduced.

I wonder what that means for us. Corporations, after all, are not (yet) enemies of individual humans. They need us the way software needs hardware and memes need brains. They certainly need the rule of law; most AmoebaCorp hate war [3]. We individuals, CEOs and peons alike, are frenemies of AmoebaCorp .

On the other hand, I don't think AmoebaCorp can get its mind around what we need to do for global climate change. Its timescape is even shorter than ours. With CT2 (Carbon Tax and Tariff) AmoebaCorp would be our friend, without CT2 it will be our enemy.

In the near term, I fear that AmoebaCorp is and will be an enemy of true invention, and without invention and innovation humanity will be in a world of hurt. AmoebaCorp cannot like disruptive technology, it may be happiest in the periods of stasis common in human history. I think we may be seeing the effects of that stasis in the IP (patent troll) wars, and in the recent history of small startup companies ...

I, Cringely » Blog Archive » No Life Insurance for Bull Riders - Cringely on technology

... Exchange Traded Funds are forcing more and more good tech companies to abandon the idea of ever going public. We saw this trend on this summer’s Startup Tour where not one of more than 30 companies we visited saw an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in its future. Every company saw itself eventually being acquired. But there’s a problem with being acquired, which is that it greatly limits the upside for entrepreneurs...

Cringely misses the point. There's a bigger problem here that fewer billionaires. The problem is that the innovations of those startups will die. They are often acquired to prevent disruption, rather than to enable disruption.

Stasis isn't the worst thing in human history, but we live in a world of 8 billion people. We are exhausting that world. Stasis is not a desirable option. The AmoebaCorp may now be more enemy than friend.

[1] Oxford American Dictionary.

See also:

[1] Private, and effectively private, corporations like 2010 Apple and 1893 J.P. Morgan and Company are much more idiosyncratic. [2] Charles Stross has been well ahead of me on this. Marx, of course, had similar intuitions, which did not lend themselves to good history. [3] Some companies sell weapons or invest in security theater of course, so it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Update 12/1/10: The next step.

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