October 17, 2010

Companies are people too


I recently read Charlie Stross’ novel Accelerando (available free online here). Accelerando is an episodic story about multiple generations of a family through a dark vision of the singularity. Like all good sci-fi it raises some interesting lines of thought, one of which resonated with me as I was pondering a similar question. What should the nature of companies be?

In Accelerando companies become self-sentient. That is they are vechicles for artificial intelligences, which use them for independence as there are no humans involved in running or owning these companies. It is the technological fulfillment of the modern legal concept that companies are people. In the novel this doesn’t end quite the way biological humans might like – but read the book to see what happens. For now think about whether companies should legally be people. I think most people would find the idea silly, but most countries since the 19th century have made corporations legal personalities. Thus they are treated like people for the purposes of taxation, lawsuits and contracts, but not for things like voting, marrying or holding office. Recently, in the US companies even gained some free spech rights under a recent Supreme Court ruling (there is a discussion on the ruling here).

I can see the need for this in civil proceedings, contracts and the like. However, I’m not sure how it works with issues such as crime and responsibility. A company is ultimately controlled by humans (at least for the present, although they can already conduct business without human involvement), but liability is limited for these people in the case of any wrongdoing by the company. The worst that will happen is bad PR, a fine or maybe the company being wound up. While there have been large scale ethical lapses in the recent (current?) financial crisis, only a handful of people have been charged with any wrongdoing. There can be a disconnect between the way people would act if their actions were attributed solely to them and the way they act inside a company. Similarly, some people suggest that if corporations are people, they are pyschopaths. Others think that the corporations versus humans dynamic in Accelerando is already here.

I need to think about this further.

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