the evil corporations

I've been writing for weeks and weeks about co-ops, authentic exchange and commerce, the practice of openness and business models, and other related topics. Between the crashing economy, my ongoing contemplation of open source, and a new project that I'm almost ready to announce, thinking about the substance of economies and the power of economies to define other aspect of our social experience has seemed really appealing. And it has been.

I came across this article by Jason Stoddard a while back, and I've realized that I would be remiss in these posts, if I didn't somehow tie it into writing and science fiction, and Stoddard's post provides a great hook into this connection. He's also, basically spot on right.

Interestingly, the beginning of this series grew out of my experiences reading Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars Trilogy," which spent a lot of time (particularly in the last two volumes) contemplating corporations and capitalism. Indeed, in the Mars books, Robinson posits what some readers (without careful examination) might think of as the typical "evil mega-corporations."

Though I think he succeeds at avoiding the traps of having as villains "scheming business people in suits," by making sure that none of the executives appear in the stories. The closest we get to having a "corporate villain," is a character who allies themselves with the corporations for personal advancement. The result is that, the corporations lumber around, always doing the wrong thing, always getting in the way of the main characters, but they never loose the extra-human nature of being corporations.

Maybe that's part of the problem with writing fiction about corporations. Fiction tends to revolve around people and social systems of comprehensible complexity and corporations are shaped and steered by a great number of people, and there's too much complexity in corporations to really capture accurately in fiction.

While Stoddard's argument (Corporations exist to make money, they're not evil by nature) is factually true and good advice to anyone writing 'corporate drama' fiction, I think writers (and the rest of us) might benefit from thinking about some other "nitty gritty" aspects of corporations. Just because corporations may be "generally a bad thing in the world," difficult to write about, and "not simply evil for the purposes of fiction" nonetheless I think it is important to think about the social/political effect corporations and to write about them in fiction.

The following list is rough, and incomplete, and I encourage you all to help me out in comments!

  • Corporations have a few overriding drives: to grow, to make profit (both by minimizing expenses and by increasing revenue), and to continue to exist. All actions and strategies undertaken by corporations should make sense in context of one or more of these drives.
  • Corporate cultures are largely self selecting, so "radicals" in corporate settings are really unlikely, either because they're likely to leave or because their self-interest eventually falls in line with the company's interest.
  • Corporations employ huge numbers of people, but we can assume that the number of people at any given company doing things that support the main mission of a company but that aren't "the thing the company does." Phyisical Plant "things," clerical tasks, human resources, "infrastructure," operations/financial tasks, internal legal work, and so forth. Probably as much as a quarter or a third of the staff probably falls into one of these categories.
  • Corporations are rarely unilateral. Ever. They have many operations, many projects, many divisions, and thus can be resilient to things changing "around them." This also means that coorporations are less likely to take umbrage at potentially threatening individuals and companies, than a single individual would in a similar situation.
  • Career advancement, in companies or elsewhere, generally happens to some greater or lesser extent by moving horizontally between companies rather than "through the ranks."
  • The bigger the corporation the more specialized the roles of the workforce would tend to be.
  • For the most part, I think it safe to assume that most corporations don't have a great deal of "classified" information, or information that's heavily embargoed. This comes as a great blow to conspiracy theorists, but secrets are hard to keep with regards to projects that a lot of people need to know about, and if all the other things we know about corporations are true (size, attrition, etc.) "great secrets" are unlikely to remain great secrets for long.

In light of all these things I think there are a lot of opportunities for realistic story telling, but it's not always so straight forward.

In anycase, I look forward to thinking about this some more with you.

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