Do people exist?

By Rick Jelliffe
September 10, 2008 | Comments: 2

Last year a friend, on a major national standards committee, wrote to me regularly complaining that it was difficult getting the things (information, documentation) he needed out of Microsoft on Office Open XML, and trying to figure out effective strategies for this. My advise to him was to first rid himself of any idea that Microsoft thought people exist: there are corporations or organizations in interesting classes, or nothing. So personalized attention would only come by first getting on their radar somehow as one head of a larger Hydra that warranted their attention. (I see Wikipedia calls Hydra anancient nameless serpent-like chthonic water beast: great!)

I think this is something that is pretty much common to most large US corporations, and indeed, to the organizational behaviour of people in most large institutions. As a theory it does explain a lot: why for example Microsoft would be so resistant to fixing bugs that did not effect new sales.

My problem, if it is a problem, is that I don't basically don't believe in the existence of institutions and corporations, only of people. So when I hear people talking about "elephants in the room" (meaning large abstractions) I tend to see the elephants as Javanese shadow puppets being carted around by individuals.

While I don't remotely agree with Maggie Thatcher's conclusion that There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation, at a fairly basic level I see what she means that There is no such thing as society. However, corporations and other ghosts do have a kind of existence (e.g. existence in the ideal), and it is of course useful shorthand to give in to the fiction and not lift the corporate veil to see the individuals behind.

But it is difficult, for me at least. I don't think I am being original at all in pointing out that giving abstractions a reality is a prerequisite of bigotry, demonization and idealization (in the day-to-day sense.) But what can we do?

Perhaps the problem is that English orthography, like XML, does not have enough tokens to represent the semantic status of nouns (especially proper nouns) for fictional/conceptual things. Perhaps we need delimiters for abstractions and fictional beings: so "Shock jock" Rex Flex said '"Liberals" want to sell "the country" to "bin Ladenites"'.

But would it always make things clearer? What about a sentence like '"IBM" disavowed that the opinions of its bloggers were anything to do with its marketing policy' for example? Where the implication was that it was really "A spokesperson for corporate officers of IBM disavowed.." therefore only containing only people.

The flood of blogs this week, with titles like Is Google becoming evil? perplex me: if "Google" does not exist, then this really is, simplistically, Are the decision makers at Google becoming evil? But more reasonably the writer is probably meaning something more like Are the decision makers at Google switching over to making decisions which will have effects that I regard as evil? Once you start to couch things in terms of the people involved, it seems that many times simplistic sentences are revealed being based on lots of tacit assumptions. The danger of these kinds of simple seeming sentences is that they can get used as if they were simple statements of fact, used in syllogisms etc.

On the other hand, bringing things down to people can also mean that prejudices that were safely deflected onto fictional beings can get targeted to people. So perhaps it might be too extreme to ban fictional beings, even legal fictions, and abstractions from discourse entirely.


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2 Comments

Rick,

Interesting (and thought-provoking) post.

I've been in and out of the corporate sphere for a number of years - O'Reilly is probably one of the most non-corporate corporations I've worked with in a long time - and keep coming back to the realization that corporations as they exist really are mechanistic wrappers ... much like SOAP messages, when you think about it.

In this day and age you cannot "legally" earn money as an individual. Instead, that money must come through the formal mechanisms of corporations in some fashion or another, either with you as an employee of a corporation or you as a contractor to a company through the agency of your own company.

I daresay that a big part of this has emerged due to the ministrations of government, since a government (itself a corporation, albeit one that theoretically does not have as a mandate showing a profit at the end of the day) must take its own particular cut of profits in the form of taxes, and as such must have some formal mechanism for accounting.

The reason I bring this up in the context of your post is that any time you create a corporate agency, that agency itself develops its own internal society and culture - where a culture can be thought of as a shared set of beliefs, history, expectations, icons, language, laws and tabus, and a society is the net of interactions between the members of that culture.

Few of these cultural properties are individual traits - they're emergent, due to interactions and shared histories. They may take shape due to the actions of the leaders of those corporations, but the beliefs of a culture may in many cases also be at odds with the beliefs of the person in the CEO seat.

Cultures can be evil. Nazi Germany is a prime example of one such culture, and arguably the American Oligarchy could be thought of as being similarly evil, if in different ways, especially if you define evil as actions taken by the culture in question that benefit its members by harming others.

Unfortunately, in our overall society we have become so brainwashed into thinking that corporations are mechanistic entities that have no good or evil that we fail to realize how destructive such corporations can be.

Indeed, one of the things I've long marvelled at is the fact that many (though by no means all) corporations exist as a way of deflecting both risk and blame. If I knowingly produce a shoddy product as an individual, I become responsible for the consequences of that, up to and including bankruptcy and prison.

If, on the other hand, I produce a shoddy product as part of a corporation, then I can take advantage of an entire set of corporate laws that insure that in most cases I'll end up at worst paying a fine, and if I work it right, I can even force the people who were injured by that product to keep their mouth shut about it in exchange for a suitable renumeration.

The level of control that corporations have is thus directly proportional to the degree to which money plays a part in our society. We're on the brink of a depression right now (and I suspect events over the weekend may have been what finally will irrevocably push us in). The next decade is going to be a rough one for a lot of people, but one of the consequences of it is that it is also going to significantly diminish the role of corporations in our lives, for good and ill, and will force people to reconfigure their social interactions in a way that will reflect that.

My guess is that a whole lot of people are going to find themselves in the underground economy within the next ten years. This isn't something I say with a lot of joy - underground economies can be brutal, tend to reinforce local monopolies and those who best control the distribution channels, and usually tend to be the refuge of criminals and thugs.

On the other hand, as people lose jobs and the support infrastructure of society, such an underground economy may well end up being the only thing that keeps people from starvation - and when a large enough number of people are involved in it, what emerges is a new economy with new cultural principles.

Sorry for the rant.

Cultures are groups of people with compatible wiring diagrams in their brains. It isn't a metaphor. It's physically true. It's the Hebb effect over populations of co-incident events. Over a period of time, the collection of co-incident events that we loosely think of as historical culture wired certain populations to act as they are acting now in response to stimuli that they really believe they understand and are responding appropriately.

Within the boundaries of their tribes/companies/committees, they are. Then occasionally, a person with wiring at the boundary of another domain is jostled into it. They become aware in a different way and might even protest.

Justice is in the hearts of individuals. You will find it nowhere in nature.

But because wiring is the mediator of behavior, and justice is a quality of behavior AND the outcomes of behavior, we have society, laws, government and standards.

We have no standard for the behaviors of those individuals who create standards. We abandoned that when we took up the cause of HTML, the w3c and XML.

Now those examples are the standard. See Clockwork Orange or Idiocracy.

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