Now that we know how Hollywood’s ignorance of economics can lead the problems inherent in a Cashless Utopia, let’s look at the flip side: We're going from a science fiction utopia where there is supposedly no capitalism, to the dystopias where capitalism is allegedly running amok.
You know what I’m talking about. Grim skies, smokestacks spewing fire, advanced technology is out there, but 99% of the population lives in squalor and poverty, bombarded with media and ads for products they can’t afford to keep their proletarian anxieties tranquilized. Meanwhile the wealthy live lives of decadence and luxury beyond the imagination of a 17th century monarch. Governments are impotent, morality is out the window, and the world is controlled by sinister organizations whose name always end in “Inc.” or "Corp."
This vision of the future began to evolve in the 1960s before reaching its full fruition on screen in the 1980s, and becoming the standard for futuristic dystopias that is still used today. Let’s look at a partial list of some of the most glaring, their crimes, and rate their business models:
Soylent Inc. (Soylent Green). The world is overpopulated to a crippling degree. There’s too many people, but too little food, and even less money. So why not make money by turning the people into food? Well, first you have to keep it really secret, because there’s no way politicians will legalize processing corpses.
That means paying off politicians and police officials, keeping the media’s nose out of it, and paying very high salaries to the employees at the processing plant to keep their mouths shut, as well as hiring hit men to eliminate those who know too much. I’ll have to give this business plan a “D-“ since it’ll probably be cheaper to just move everyone to Texas turning it into one big city with the population density of Manhattan, and then put everywhere else under the plough.
Weyland-Yutani (Alien movies). It looks like the bulk of Weyland-Yutani’s business is mining in outer space. Okay, there’s no real problem with that. However, they do have a weapons division, and that weapons division really wants to get their hands on those hungry xenomorphs and will do anything to get them back on Earth.
The premise is that they can be used as a weapon by the company’s clients. Hmmmm… but, and this is an Oprah sized but, a weapon you cannot control, that is extremely hard to stop, is not a weapon, it’s a problem. Can you imagine the sales pitch: “It’s a creature that you let loose and it slaughters everyone in its path indiscriminately, including the people it’s supposed to serve. So, when would you like delivery?”
Sorry, I don’t really see any military run by anyone with a functioning brain-cell ordering something like that, not when they can build relatively effective and lifelike robots who actually obey orders without question.
Then there’s the big secret of the military-industrial complex: They don’t make real money on weapons. Defence contracts have extremely slim profit margins due to the billions spent on research, development, and lobbying the government. The contractors earn their biggest profits licensing their technology for civilian uses. High-tech weapon guidance systems become parts of game consoles, new strong and lightweight materials get used in cars and civilian aircraft, etc., etc…
Can you see a civilian use for the xenomorph?
So deliberately endangering the survival of humanity on the slim chance you might con someone into buying a weapon that can only backfire and has no peaceful uses gives their business plan a big fat “F-.”
Cyberdyne Systems (Terminator). This company specializes in developing supercomputers and killing machines for the military to use fighting wars. Sounds all right. However these systems aren’t programmed with any sort of synthetic morality to keep them from turning on humanity, including their masters, and they don’t build them with an off switch in case they do.
Not as smart as they think they are since the real profits in weapons development come from, as I just said, finding peaceful civilian uses for their products. Business Model: “C-,” a good idea is useless with such a world ending execution.
Tyrel Corporation (Blade Runner). They make bio-mechanical androids for use as slave labour in off-world colonies. Personally, this business model should just be called “sue me” because that’s what you’ll get. First, thousands of lawyers would be fighting for android rights, especially when the androids look like a twenty-two year old Daryl Hannah, the politicians that allow slave labour would be voted out of office, and the families and friends of the people killed when the androids go nuts would also sue. Give this on an “D-“ because it would just be easier to build harmless non-sentient robots that look like ugly robots.
The Union (Repo Men). The Union makes their money by selling bio-mechanical replacement organs to sick people. However, if you miss three payments, agents for The Union will hunt you down, murder you, and take the replacement organs back for recycling.
Think about that for a second. A company that tries that would be indicted so quickly their heads would spin. Of course the natural response to that assertion is that the corporation simply buys off the justice system. Okay, let’s assume they do. Then they have to deal with vigilantes seeking revenge for their dead relatives, political terrorists looking to make a point, or angry loners who think they’re the devil because they’re acting like the devil.
Not only do the company’s management have to deal with that, so do the politicians who allow them to run amok. This means literally employing armies of mercenaries to keep their management and repo men safe from revenge attacks. That would exponentially explode their overhead costs, so it would just be cheaper, and safer, to develop their technology so that it’s as cheap and easy to obtain as possible, and then take whatever they can get without resorting to murder. Give this one an “F-.“
Hailsham House (Never Let Me Go) Merrick Biotech (The Island) and Clonus (Parts: The Clonus Horror). I’m putting these three together because they basically have the same premise. That premise is that sinister organizations, are creating clones to provide replacement organs for the wealthy elite.
Now all these stories were conceived at a time when no one outside of deep genetic research thought it was possible for the cloning of individual replacement organs, which is now entering the realm of possibility. So we can forgive the writers for not thinking of it, and henceforth ruining their statement on man’s inhumanity to man.
However, such a business requires being able to keep everything secret in a future that comes after this present time, an age when NOTHING is kept secret for very long. Now since news of their shenanigans would inevitably get out they can expect criminal investigations, and if they use their corporate bulk to stop that, probably some sort of vigilantism by people horrified at the breeding of human beings to be murdered for their parts.
The people running these evil schemes would have to live as fugitives with security details bigger than the US president's, and so will all of their rich customers who can’t adequately explain their longevity and prolonged good looks. Better to just spend what they would have spent on secrecy and raising clones be spent on researching how to make individual organs. It'll be easier that way.
Another problem is that no one maintains the same level of wealth throughout their lives. When people are young enough to plan for a day in the seemingly distant future when their organs fail, they usually have neither the money or the foresight to arrange for the clones to created and raised on their behalf.
When they are rich enough to afford to get a clone, they're usually too old to wait the couple of decades needed for their clones to be mature enough to donate properly, and if they last that long, they're probably not going to be rich enough anymore to afford not only the clone butchering service but the massive security and legal apparatus needed to survive its inevitable discovery. Give this one an “F.”
Omni Consumer Products (Robocop). OCP’s plan is to tear down the anarchic and bankrupt city of Detroit, and build a new functioning city on top of it. Now if you stick with just the first movie, and compare it with the current state of Detroit, you’d probably give it at least a “B+” but downgrade it to a “D” for the embarrassment and litigation caused by the discovery that they used a dead cop’s severed head as the central processor for a what’s essentially a weapons system.
Hmmm… Looks like most of these corporations would spend all their time fighting lawsuits, criminal investigations, and possibly even terrorism. Not much profit in that.
I’m all for the willful suspension of disbelief, however, a villain’s scheme should not look completely stupid, otherwise they’re not a proper villain, they're a hackneyed plot device.
But what are the roots of this?
Those who work in Hollywood think all businesses are run like Hollywood, but this goes beyond the movies, and into literature. So we’re going to need a little history lesson.
Back in the 1960s when the trope of the corporation ruled world first started to bloom it looked like the obvious future. After World War 2 the industries of Europe and Asia were in ruins, and allied Britain wasn’t in much better shape either. That meant that the industries, and corporations, of the USA bestrode the world like a colossus. They literally had no competition, because their competition was either a big smoking hole, half of their work force had been killed, or they're up to beyond their heads in debt.
This meant that American corporations grew to immense size and economic and political power. They also seemed immortal, since they were literally too big to be capable of failing.
However, that image has proven to be an illusion. A lot of major corporations that were once thought to be the rulers of the future are now shrunk to mere shadows of their former preeminence, or died in the form of bankruptcy, their assets scattered and sold. The new corporations that took their place employed fewer people while the average lifespan of a corporation, the time between its founding and its dissolution, dropped from 60 years to just 15 years. In their place are the rise of the “funds,” investment entities like brokerages, mutual funds, and hedge funds, that are centred around the business acumen, guile, and political influence of individual super-investors.
So now that we know that corporations are far more fragile than we were led to believe, why does the notion of the corporate dystopia persist? Well, there are several reasons.
1. HISTORY: As I said before, the roots of this goes back to the 1950s when the USA had the only really functional industries. It was also a time when President Eisenhower warned of the “military/industrial complex.” Which he feared was a cabal of military officials, politicians, and industrial forces that would conspire to either start wars for profit or manipulate the country into a state of profitable near-war. Then in the 1960s and 1970s came stories of American companies bullying third world governments, or even overthrowing them, and an image was locked in stone.
2. SAFE REBELLION: Artists like to define themselves as rebels, bucking convention in all things. However, there is a streak of conformity in such rebellion, especially when it comes to their education at most universities. Now the key to being a rebel is to stand against institutions. In the old days governments and their bureaucracies were the institutions to rebel against.
Nowadays they’re being taught in universities that government bureaucracies are the solution to all the world’s problems as long as they are run by the correct political party. If you disagree, you’re probably going to fail your course and end up with $100,000+ in debt with no degree. So who do you rebel against who won’t actually do anything to destroy your future? Corporations. When was the last time a novelist or filmmaker was flunked, fired or otherwise harmed by portraying a corporation as a villain in a work of fiction? Never. They’re big faceless institutions with more important things on their plate, like making money.
3. CONVENIENCE: It’s just easy to summarize your dystopia as “everything’s bad because corporations rule the world.” It’s quick, simple, and saves you time from building something new, because everyone knows what one looks like, they’ve seen Blade Runner.
Now I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t use corporations as villains. If you have a rational thing for your villain to do, sure, go for it. However, I am asking for any writer that reads this to stop and think if their villain’s evil plan would make either money or sense before they put it on paper.
Of course one can’t talk about corporate dystopias without talking about…
(Stay tuned for part four tomorrow: The Hoarding One Percent.)
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