Kevin Williamson wonders why the dystopic corporate giant of so many science fiction books and movies doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to reality:
That the future will be dominated by amoral international (or interstellar) corporations is a constant theme of science fiction and, not unrelatedly, of progressive political thought. The rogues’ gallery includes Cyberdyne Systems (Terminator), Weyland-Yutani (Alien), Omni Consumer Products (Robocop), and Charlton Heston’s friends at Soylent Inc. The gold standard of the genre is the Tyrel Corporation, from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The film, which is indisputably a visual masterpiece, is much heavier on the theme of corporate dominance than the novel is, which is strange: The corporation of 1982 was a smaller and weaker thing than the corporation of 1968.
At its best, science fiction imagines a future that illuminates the present, but on the subject of the social role of the corporation, science fiction has long been backward-looking, out of touch with the reality it would analyze. The cultural imagination at large shares this error, though it is difficult to say how much this defect in science fiction is a result of the cultural error and how much it is the cause. But it would be difficult to overstate how deeply the specter of the villainous corporation shapes American political thought. The influence is more visible the farther to the left one moves along the political spectrum. Occupy Wall Street was probably at least as much influenced by science-fiction visions of corporate dystopias as it was by any kind of organized political thought. There were unmistakably Maoist elements to Occupy, but the sinister connotations of the very word “corporation” are by no means heard by only those ears attached to the addled heads of committed leftists.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was set in 1992, Blade Runner in 2019, yet here we are, well into the 21st century, and there is still no colossal Tyrel Corporation bestriding the globe, and nothing like the corporate sovereignties of Jennifer Government. As myth, the corporate dystopia remains undiminished in its power. But the function of myths is to illuminate reality, and the reality is that there is no Tyrel Corporation today, and none on the horizon. If you want to know what the corporation of tomorrow looks like, don’t think Cyberdyne — think Groupon.
You would not know it from reading fiction, speaking with Occupy types, or listening to the speeches at the Democratic National Convention, but the corporation as we know it is in decline: The average size of a corporation as measured by personnel has been diminishing since 1975. In 1955 the largest U.S. company, General Motors, employed 576,000 people out of a U.S. population of 166 million; today Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. company, employs only 82,000 people. Microsoft employs fewer than 100,000 people worldwide; Google employs about 54,000, and Facebook fewer than 6,000.