Corporations are Software, and Up for Revision
Revisiting my book Life Inc, Fifteen Years Later

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 7 October 2022

I’ve been on something of a virtual tour for my new book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. It’s the first book I’ve written since Life Inc in 2008 that hasn’t recounted the process by which corporations and capitalism replaced business and commerce, and how most of Silicon Valley’s ignorance of that history has put them and their companies at the mercy of an economic operating system they mistake for the laws of nature.

Instead, I’ve been talking about more current missteps, such as how bitcoin unnecessarily recapitulates the extractive and speculative biases of central currency. Invariably, someone will get up to say I don’t understand how crypto works (I do understand how it works, and more importantly how it could work). But even more people ask where these extractive biases and addiction to growth came from in the first place. That’s why I’m pointing people back at my earlier books about exactly this problem.

I never wanted to write about business or economics. I was into digital technology and the early Internet as extensions of human consciousness. The fact that a few business people thought they could make money off this stuff was superfluous to me. If anything, I believed, the values inherent to peer-to-peer networking would soon break capitalism’s hold over our civilization.

But in 1999, I got a phone call from the New York Times OpEd page to write a piece on the AOL-TimeWarner merger. Really? I knew nothing about stocks and corporate acquisitions, but I figured I would wing it. So I took a look at the situation, and applied the lens of a media and technology theorist to the deal. AOL’s stock was an all-time high, but its subscription rate had started to peak. Steven Case, the founder, was cashing in his inflated shares by purchasing a real media conglomerate with studios and magazines and amusement parks and a cable TV company. In my analysis, this meant the Dotcom boom was about to go bust.

The NYTimes wouldn’t publish the piece. Everyone there thought I was nuts, and that the merger would augur a new “synergy” between old and new media. Of course, the whole thing collapsed almost immediately, and the Dotcom balloon popped a few months later.

By looking at corporations as a kind of software, and currency as the operating system beneath them, I was able to see a lot of things about the economic landscape that the traditional experts were missing. So I decided to get a PhD in Media Theory and Digital Economics, and then write a book about our economic woes, treating both corporations and the currency on which they ran as forms of media. They are not nature. They weren’t always here. Like any media, they were surely created by human beings at a particular moment in history, with very particular goals in mind.

I did the research — my first truly deep research. I found the original charters for the Dutch East India Trading Company, among others. Stuff people hadn’t really looked at in a long time. And what I learned was the these first charters were actually pacts between monarchs and their favorite merchants. In return for a government-sanctioned monopoly over a particular sector, the merchant would give the King a percent of the business. There was no more competition, because there was only supposed to be one company doing any particular activity. Everyone else became “employees” of the chartered monopolies.

Meanwhile, monarchs applied this same principle to currency. People had been successfully using local currencies at their markets, raising them from impoverished peasants to middle class craftspeople who owned their own small businesses. But as they got wealthier, the aristocracy got relatively poorer. If things got any worse, the aristocracy may have even been forced to create some value instead of just extracting the wealth of others. So the royals declared all local moneys illegal, and forced people to borrow “coin of the realm,” at interest, from the central treasury. This monopoly on currency guaranteed that the rich could stay rich simply by having exclusive rights to lend money into circulation. And it also lead to the requirement we still live with today, which is that the economy must grow in order to pay back all the interest.

Life Inc looks at the way that this system “corporatism” dominates pretty much every aspect of our world. Monopoly is not some abuse of the economic system. It is the core code of our monetary operating system and the programs that run on it. And it’s at least half of what led to “the Mindset” I deconstructed in my just-published book, Survival of the Richest.

The most well-researched book I’ve ever written, Life Inc still offers the clearest suggestions for how we can take back our economy, and our world, from the mindless billionaires and virtual entities that now control it.