Companies rule – ok?


I came late to this particular party. The one where companies become so large and wield so much influence that they’re able to provide services that national governments can’t – or won’t – provide to citizens. The one where a company is seen as having more chance than governments of changing the world. The one where companies have far deeper pockets and far clearer visions, coupled with the determination to realise those visions, than any current government I can think of.

I first came across a well-developed description of this proposition in an article in FT Weekend Magazine – The new country of Facebook – in October last year. It was interesting and one to mull over, but the idea popped up again last week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. If it warrants a mention in passing on Today, it warrants more thought.

My list of potential corporate-nations isn’t long and I suspect there aren’t any surprises. I’d put Facebook and Google at the top of the list (and I’ve put them in alphabetical order), followed by Amazon and Apple (again, in alphabetical order). The key factor in the ranking isn’t so much ambition (which all four companies and far more besides have in spades), as multiple touch-points in people’s daily lives and access to a deep mine of personal information. Underlying this is trust – or, failing that, dependence.

Increasingly, it’s dependence that becomes interesting. To make our lives easier, to make sure we aren’t left behind (by friends; by technology; by trends), we accept that this involves handing over information.

But this isn’t a blog entry about big data and data-mining. What I’m interested in is how allegiances could weaken over time, so that government becomes more distant from people’s lives because those lives are focused elsewhere. Governments can be left speaking to people who turned their backs a long time ago. If the citizen’s principal interactions with government become restricted to the fiscal (payment of taxes; receipt of benefits or pensions) or security matters, the tie between citizen and government will become even more frayed than it is at present.

Because the services that could, potentially, be provided through technology – or with its assistance – are vast. Health and education are areas that are already seeing changes, but technology is also impacting food production, construction and transport.

I don’t think we’ll dispense with governments, but I fully expect that companies will continue to extend their spheres of influence and I hope I don’t become too dependent on them in the process. No matter how good the party, it’s always good to have your escape plan in case it all ends in tears.