Being a corp means never having to say sorry

Anyone who's been unlucky enough to have a friendly argument with me over a drink or two has quickly learned that there are certain subjects about which I am so passionate that rational argument becomes difficult: lawyers and the legal system are one, student loans are another; recently, a third has been added to the list - the corporation.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a strange recurring dream: in it, I am walking down a long straight road through endless acres of wheat — wheat, stretching as far as the eye can see in any direction. In the last few weeks, I’ve thought about this dream a lot.

It’s been more than two weeks now since the DoJ’s anti-trust case against Microsoft collapsed into farce, and I’m still trying to work out what the implications are going to be both for me personally as a user and developer, and for the computer industry as a whole. No matter how I twist the permutations, I simply can’t see anything good coming out of it; in fact, call me pessimistic if you want, but about all I can see is an endless vista of a computer industry owned by Microsoft for the foreseeable future — acres of bland Microsoft Office promotional stands stretching as far as the eye can see in any direction, with nary a weed to disturb the view.

It’s right about now that this column could turn into a wailing, teeth-gnashing tirade against Microsoft — and believe me, every low-level emotional instinct in me wants to do that; but you don’t want to hear it, and it would serve no imaginable purpose other than to embarrass me publicly — criticising Microsoft is like throwing pebbles at a battle tank. Instead, let’s spend a moment or two looking at that last statement, and try to understand why such criticism is about as useful as pouring battery acid into the ocean.

Anyone who’s been unlucky enough to have a friendly argument with me over a drink or two has quickly learned that there are certain subjects about which I am so passionate that rational argument becomes difficult: lawyers and the legal system are one, student loans are another; recently, a third has been added to the list — the corporation. To me, the corporation is the scariest and most incomprehensible thing man has ever created — it’s a device whose manifest purpose is to allow people to do business without being constrained by ethics or responsibility for their actions.

How often have you heard a corporate executive justify a dodgy decision by saying that the corporation has a duty to its shareholders? “It’s okay for us to build a dangerous, polluting factory in your neighbourhood because we have a duty to our shareholders to keep costs to a minimum.” The incredible thing is that society appears to have bought into this claptrap as if it were a fundamental truth of modern life.

Granted, the idea is not new — 200 years ago, Diderot wrote “The means for enriching oneself may be criminally immoral, although permitted by law” — but modern society has sanctioned corporate amorality and made it an almost inviolable truth.

The modern corporation is a synergistic entity — it is far more than the sum of its parts, and has an identity and life all of its own. Corporations are willing members of society only to the extent that it is expedient for them to be so. Clearly, corporations exist to do business, so they have to be seen publicly to be paying at least lip-service to the idea of “being a good citizen”: but in countless cases from the Exxon Valdez to the Bhopal disaster, corporations have illustrated that being a good citizen is not even a factor in their thinking when profit is at stake.

The US Department of Justice is now finding out the hard way that a really large, wealthy corporation is basically uncontrollable — and it’s this that really has me scared at the moment. I believe that control of the modern world is no longer really in the hands of governments or the people who elect them — it has passed to a new plutocratic elite, answerable only to a nebulous group called “the shareholders”, and not even always answerable to them.

It’s the triumph of basic human self-interest over the good of the nation, or the good of the species ... Simply put, it is the sanctification of greed as a virtue.

Part of me really admires Microsoft — the part that can appreciate how well it achieves the basic aims for which it was created as a corporate entity.

Under the new rules of life in the 21st century, Microsoft probably stands as a shining model for other corporations, and for the imminent despair of the common man.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet mail package Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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Tags monopoliescorporations

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