William Gibson's fiction is full of unique, near-future predictions about how society and culture respond to technology. The recent LonleyGirl15/YouTube story, closely mirroring the plot of his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, invites serious consideration of some of his other concepts.

A theme carried by both the dialogue and narrative of his novels is the comparison of large corporations with biological entities. Hapless families and individuals of incredible wealth are cocooned inside corporate apparatus that has accrued with their fortunes.

This is a compelling idea, and not necessarily a new one. Economists and financial analysts have long recognized that any company has a sort of genetic code, stored somewhere in its organization, mix of employees, assets and liabilities. It is not surprising that they've found these factors exceptionally difficult to correlate with the company's behaviour -- after all, biologists have similar troubles with complexity. Researchers who have recently used massively parallel computing to simulate a single virus in a droplet of water acknowledge that sophisticated methods will be needed to predict macroscopic behaviour without resorting to brute force.

The biology-economy analogy breaks down when applied too closely, but several high-level insights are useful:

  • Economic colonialism (think McDonalds and Burger King openings overseas) can be likened to sporulation. If conditions are suitable, more franchises may emerge; otherwise the process either yields a single location in a large country, or fails altogether at little cost to the parent entity.
  • Entities will react with varying sophistication to ensure their own survival. GM is undergoing major reorganization to react to the presence of competitors (foreign carmakers) and its own excess weight - compare with moulting reptiles. Smaller companies would be unable to adapt to similar environmental changes. Government policy can be regarded as another "environmental" factor. Witness the speed at which online gambling firms fled the U.S. market after a recent bill outlawing Internet betting; bacteria display similar averse reactions to chemicals and pH changes in their habitats.
  • Identity becomes increasingly meaningless in the corporate (organism) structure as size increases. Gibson illustrates with characteristic borrowings from Japanese language and culture; the zaibatsu is the prototypical multinational, and the typical employee is a sarariman.

An extension of the latter point is that executives and boardmembers of large firms are absolved from many sorts of responsibility. This is a phenomenon widely cited an indicator of Western decadence, although the popular example of Enron defies the present analogy, because it was motivated by personal greed. The actions the HP board and its chair, Patricia Dunn, are perhaps more useful.

For Rousseau's noble savage and Hobbes' self-interested brute alike, corporate underlings are influenced primarily by the pressures that define their role in the corporate structure than they are by actual law. In short, while government is a macroscopic factor that affects the actions of whole companies, it is only tenuously felt by the atomic element of the corporate structure, the worker. Like the amino acid in the protein, his part in reactions and processes is dictated by very basic and immediate interactions.

As mere organelles, executives (to the same extent as other employees) are vectors of the forces of shareholder interest and the need to secure profits. This is in fact the place where the analogy is most tangent to Gibson's work; his cyberpunk characters are hired by secrective security contractors to participate in clandestine, paramilitary and highly illegal acts which are of crucial corporate interest.

Of course, there are some phenomena which can't be explained without stretching the analogy very thin. For example, Wal-Mart's monopsonistic relationship with its suppliers is difficult to analyse except by comparison to symbiosis or parasitism. We should like to say Wal-Mart is killing its hosts, only this is weak because it is much larger.

An ideological revelation which follows from this analogy is that societal expectations for moral behaviour of employees do not suffice to constrain companies to act in certain ways—for example, on the environment. Governmental pressure is necessary to alter the "waters" in which the "bacteria" swim, and alter their habits of consumption and production of wastes.


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