Cowboys and Pit Crews by Atul Gawande (The New Yorker)
Why the Impossible Happens More Often by Kevin Kelly
Image courtesy Eole Wind
If you asked someone what an ‘artificial person’ was today, they’d probably give you a dirty look; and if you asked them a hundred years ago, they might have talked about robots or computers or neural networks. But if you asked a lawyer or an economist, they’d know exactly what you mean – a company.
A company is simply an association of people or organisations who each provide some capital towards attaining a goal, which often involves making more money. Centuries ago, companies were recognised as ‘legal persons’ or ‘artificial persons’ that can outlive their founders, with all sorts of special conditions.
Some of the very first companies such as the VOC and the British East India Company were formed to carry out difficult, risky, and expensive operations, and were accordingly massive and for the most part, long-lived. Over time, it became useful to set up companies for smaller endeavours, and by 1856, individuals in the UK could set up limited liability companies on their own.
Today’s object is a organisation that would seem wholly pointless if not totally ineffective – a company that didn’t last for decades or years or even months, but just two weeks. It was called 46 Central Green; it wasn’t a shell or a holding company, nor a convenient legal fiction for the shuttling around of assets or rights between other companies or individuals; it had real, human employees from Cordoba, Santiago, and Madrid that created a real product, sold it, made a profit, and then dissolved itself.
Social historian Ernesto Morales of Universidad Nacional de Córdoba explains:
“In response to the prolonged and, as it turned out, systemic ‘unemployment’ that occurred in the early 21st century, the UK, Ireland, Australia, Singapore, and various US states attempted to stimulate job growth by accelerating the time required to set up new companies. Instead of taking a few days and a number of forms, companies could be set up almost instantly. Throw in ready-made legal structures and voting systems that operated purely online, without the need for any physical meetings or papers to be shuffled around, and it was possible to create and run companies with practically no wasted time or effort.”
This acceleration didn’t have the desired effect of reducing unemployment – that didn’t come until changes in social security, along with consumption patterns in China and other developing countries – but it did open the door to instant enterprises that could take advantage of new opportunities and get products or services to market far faster than larger established companies.
One might have thought that large companies – some of which had thousands of people and enormous amounts of capital to spare – would be best placed to take risks in, say, creating new hydroponics kits or designing more efficient ships. Their efficiencies of scale, not to mention their established relationships with suppliers, regulators, and customers should surely demolish any upstart companies.
While this remained true for capital-intensive ventures like space travel or geo-engineering, it was becoming agonisingly less true for larger and larger swathes of industry. When there’s a 3D printer on every road, everyone owns a pair of glasses, gigabit connectivity is effectively free and ubiquitous, and delivery can be bought through UCS-Fedex and any number of out-of-the-box fulfilment companies, it makes much less sense to talk of the advantages of large companies.
Instead, it’s more accurate to talk about their disadvantages – the groupthink, the aversion to disrupting existing business models, the not-invented-here syndrome, the lack of motivation and reward among most employees. No wonder the acceleration of instant enterprises matched by the gradual demise of large companies in the 20s
46 Central Green was in the furniture business; not quite the high-tech sector it later became in the late 20s with the arrival of motiles, but still bursting with potential profits. The co-founders, Fernando Lopez and Michael Davies, had met at a party in Cardiff in the early 20s and discovered a mutual affinity for the personalised sculptures. They maintained a correspondance for a few years with Fernando helping out Michael on an Crossball accessory toy for Electronic Arts when Arcline released a new type of unlimited-length carpenter robot.
Within a few hours, they hit upon the idea of software that would design personalised, procedurally-generated chairs, desks, tables, and sofas. However, neither founder was an expert programmer, plus they still needed a good customer service manager, a writer, and an operations co-ordinator. Their next step was obvious – find an human resources expert. Ernesto Morales explains:
“Success and fortune is highly contingent on when we’re born. Throughout history, different skills and qualities have been important: from strength, to concentration to systematic thinking to beauty. In the age of automation, creativity, and co-operation, the most valued skill was the ability to assemble teams that could function well. A well-assembled team could outthink and outperform a much larger and well-resourced one.”
“Some founders used advanced data mining to examine candidates’ patterns and modes of communication via emails, tweets, vocs, and so on, to determine which individuals might interact best with each other. This had only middling success though – it was harder to make a good team than simply picking out the top ranked candidates from a list and putting them on the same channel though – it meant understanding exactly how people thought and communicated with one another. It was a most human task, requiring genuine insight and empathy, and if you could afford them, HR experts were invaluable.”
The motley group of students, artists, and a former lawyer that comprised 46 Central Green decided to adopt the North Portland model for their legal structure, voting system, and reward and compensation, in which effectively, people would get paid out roughly in proportion to the amount of time and effort they paid in, with a multiplier for skill (based on reputation metrics, digital records of achievement, etc) and capital injected. Once enacted, the actual work of programming, writing, designing, and marketing could begin.
Two weeks later, it was all done – their furniture was on the market and selling well, and they’d just accepted an offer to have their designs and software bought out by another company in return for royalties. With the project completed, the company automatically dissolved with the team going their separate ways.
That’s not to say that the friendships and ties also dissolved – in fact, many would work together again on future projects – but the company saw no need to tie everyone together if there wasn’t a idea that would immediately justify it.
It was an extreme view, and to outsiders, it seemed like a strange and mercenary experience. It was still a stressful and risky way of life, particularly in the times before basic minimum income and before wider co-operatives emerged – but it was fairer than freelancing; it was fast; and it was powerful. A taste of what was to come.