Venkatesh Rao has a fascinating, mind-blowing, and somewhat half-baked post on the history of the corporation from 1600 to 2100.  If you like Big Exciting Ideas you’ll like it.

I like his little diagram of, well, Things That Influence History:

Venk diagram

 He explains:

On the scale of days or weeks, culture, politics and war matter a lot more in shaping our daily lives. But those forces fundamentally cancel out over longer periods.  They are mostly noise, historically speaking. They don’t cause creative-destructive, unidirectional change (whether or not you think of that change as “progress” is a different matter).

Business though, as an expression of the force of unidirectional technological evolution, has a destabilizing unidirectional effect. It is technology, acting through business and Schumpeterian creative-destruction, that drives monotonic, historicist change, for good or bad. Business is the locus where the non-human force of technological change sneaks into the human sphere.

Which however suggests that there should really be an even smaller, harder circle called “Technology”.  Science and technology don’t always have to go through business to get things done.

He divides the history of the corportaion neatly into two periods: one in which corporations largely invested in the control of space, which largely meant getting direct and exclusive access to physical resources in a zero-sum mercantilist world; and one in which they sought to control time– i.e. what we usually call productivity, which involves that deep embrace of technology. 

I have some quibbles over some of his details.  I think he focuses on the East India Company too much, because he’s part of the Anglosphere.  He mentions the Dutch VOC but only barely; but the story he tells of a corporation taking over a key supply region (the EIC, Bengal, 1757) was foreshadowed a hundred years earlier by the VOC in the Spice Islands.  (Indeed, just as the EIC is largely why there was a British India, the VOC is largely why there is an Indonesia.)

He has an interesting idea, Peak Attention.  Time-mining, he says, has its limits.  The premodern lifestyle had huge sinks of wasted time which technology could save: think of all the time it took to chop down trees, wash clothes, cook meals.  This fits in with Yglesias’s point about surprising unproductivity in mid-20C America: insurance used to be done by door-to-door sales, backed up by hordes of pencil pushers and people who looked things up in printed tables.

But, says Rao, there are limits to how much more attention can be mined.  Corporations today are reduced to remining time already saved: e.g. convincing people to watch your new TV show on your computer instead of going to a movie theater.

I’m not so sure about this.  For one thing, it seems to be confusing productivity with leisure time.  So far as I can see, productivity in work can keep increasing for a very long time.  Whatever your job, there’s going to be something that can be done to speed it up; and if this process is repeated enough, entirely new job categories will be created. 

Productivity can increase leisure time, but only if that’s a social value… in the US, so far as I can see, it isn’t; if anything companies are demanding more from their workers.  

The article kind of falls apart when it comes to explaining what’s next.  Rao thinks the heyday of the corporation is over, but doesn’t really explain why, besides referencing Ronald Coase.  He starts to talk like this:

How do we measure Coasean growth? I have no idea. I am open to suggestions. All I know is that the metric will need to be hyper-personalized and relative to individuals rather than countries, corporations or the global economy. There will be a meaningful notion of Venkat’s rate of Coasean growth, but no equivalent for larger entities.

The fundamental scarce resource that Coasean growth discovers and colonizes is neither space, nor time. It is perspective.

Digging a bit deeper, this seems to refer to “cloudworking” and other blue-sky notions that the mid-20C corporate workforce is over.  I haven’t read enough to be sure what he’s talking about, but my initial reaction is that he’s mistaken an increase in corporate power for its opposite.  The cradle-to-grave job such as my father had is gone not because workers wanted to be free, but because labor is nearly powerless, and because job requirements are far less static.

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