A Potential Legacy of Disaster

By on November 16th, 2013 in Ethics, Societal Impact, Topics

To imagine how things could go bad, we have to imagine these charming techies [today’s beneficent tech company leaders] turning into bitter elders or yielding their empires to future generations of entitled clueless heirs.” (How Should We Think about Privacy, Scientific American, Nov. 2013) [And yes, this is the same one quoted in the last entry, good article — read it!]

I’ve wondered what the half-life of a Fortune 500 company is.  I’ve worked for a few, some like Intel when they were not yet in the 500, some like IBM were and are, and some like Digital were and are no more.  It is clear as we watch the life-arc of companies like Digital, Sun Microsystems, Xilog, etc. that most do not have particularly long lives — maybe a decade or three. And I sense that this window may be shortening. Venture capitalists always look for exit strategies – often selling a creative startup that is not getting traction to some lumbering legacy giant who thinks they can fix it. (This seems occasionally like getting your pet “fixed” more than getting your car “fixed”.) But some beat the odds and make the big time.  Investors happy, founders happy, occasionally employees (shout out to the Woz who made pre-IPO stock available to Apple employees) — but when things get big a different mentality takes charge — milking the cash cow.  One reason the big-guys buy up the little guys is to keep them from disrupting their legacy business models. Even when they have good intentions they often are clueless when it comes to keeping the momentum going with the innovators and/or customer base, and eventually drive their acquisition into the ground.

The point of the Scientific American article is that the transition of surviving corporations to new owners, or even loss of shareholder control, can turn a company dedicated to “Doing No Evil” in a different direction. The article suggests that the current “convenience” facilities in your smartphone that suggest an <advertisers> spot to get lunch based on your location and local time could go further, controlling your action at pre-cognitive levels with pavlovian manipulation of your actions. — It may  not be what the founders of Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. feel is right … but then, the decision may be mandated by new ownership, stockholder interests, etc.

It has been suggested a military device has never been invented that was not eventually used in warfare.  I won’t swear that is true, but the corollary is that no path to increased profits has been identified that has not eventually been used by corporations. At the same time, we have few ways to protect ourselves from future abuse — policy entities are hesitant to take preventative actions — and corporate interests are strongly involved once they smell blood … excuse me, cash.