Today, if you asked someone what an 'artificial person' is, they'd give you a dirty look. Go back a hundred years and they might have talked about robots or computers or neural networks. But if you asked a lawyer or an economist in that time, they'd have given a completely different answer: it's a company.
At its core, a company is an association of people or organisations who each provide some capital towards attaining a goal, typically 'make more money'. Centuries ago, companies were recognised as 'legal or artificial persons' that could outlive their founders, persons that had unique abilities and restrictions.
The very first companies, such as the VOC and the British East India Company, were often formed to carry out difficult, risky, and expensive ventures. Accordingly, they were massive and ideally extremely long-lived. But over time, it became useful to set up companies for smaller and shorter endeavours, and by 1856, individuals in the UK could set up limited liability companies on their own.
Our ‘object’ is the founding document for an organisation that might once have seemed wholly pointless — a company that didn't last for decades or years or even months, but just two weeks. It was called 46 Central Green. 46 Central Green wasn't a shell company or a holding company, nor a convenient legal fiction for the shuttling around of assets or rights; it had real, human employees from Cordoba, Santiago, and Madrid. Like other 'real' companies, it created a real product, sold it, made a profit, and then dissolved itself — it just did it much faster than normal.
Social historian Ernesto Morales of Universidad Nacional de Córdoba explains:
"The prolonged and, as it turned out, systemic 'unemployment' that occurred in the early 21st century saw the UK, Ireland, Australia, Singapore, and various US states attempt to stimulate job growth through a package of enterprise-friendly measures including cutting the time required to form a new company. Instead of taking a few days and a number of forms, companies could be set up within minutes, by anyone, at practically no cost. Throw in ready-made legal structures, voting systems, and banking that operated purely online, and you could create and run companies without the need for any physical meetings or papers to be shuffled around."
This acceleration didn't have the desired effect of reducing unemployment, which was never properly addressed, but it did open the door to instant enterprises. These companies could take advantage of new opportunities and get products and services to market far faster than larger incumbents.
One might have thought that large companies — some of which had thousands of people and billions in capital to spare — would be best placed to take risks on new products. A mere fraction of their capital could be spent to create new hydroponics kits or design more efficient ships, and their economies of scale, not to mention their established relationships with suppliers, regulators, and customers, would surely demolish any upstart companies.
There were two problems, though. The first was the classic 'innovator's dilemma' coupled with stock market-induced shortsightedness; and the second was the fact that economies of scale were beginning to vanish. While there would always be capital-intensive ventures such as space travel or geo-engineering, larger and larger swaths of the economy required less and less capital to enter.
When there's a 3D printer on every street, when everyone owns a pair of powerful glasses, when gigabit connectivity is effectively free and ubiquitous, and when 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, not-invented-here syndrome, the lack of motivation and reward among most employees.
The co-founders of 46 Central Green, Fernando Lopez and Michael Mullen, had met at a gallery opening in Santiago in 2019, where they discovered a mutual interest for personalised sculptures. Both were in between projects, and within a few hours, they hit upon the idea of software that would design personalised, procedurally generated Celtic-styled chairs, desks, and dressers. They engaged the services of an HR expert to assemble a team for their requirements, and quickly incorporated.
The motley group of students, artists, and one former lawyer that comprised 46 Central Green decided to adopt the North Portland model for their legal structure, voting system, and compensation scheme. Under this model, employees would get paid in proportion to the time and effort they put in, with multipliers for skill (based on reputation metrics and records of achievement) and capital injected, plus independent assessments of their results. Once enacted, the actual work of programming, writing, designing, and marketing could begin, conducted furiously over window conferencing and shared VR environments.
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. It was a little quicker than expected, but with the project completed the company automatically dissolved and the team went their separate ways; they saw no need in tying everyone together if there wasn't work that justified it. Still, many would work together again on future projects.
To outsiders, it seemed like a strange and mercenary exercise, lacking in the stability and community of companies of old. The truth was, those old companies didn't really exist any more; they were mostly dead 'artificial people' walking. Skipping between instant enterprises was often 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.