Who suggested that multinational corporations are highest life forms?
July 5, 2015 4:53 AM   Subscribe

Who was the anthropologist who suggested that multinational corporations are the highest life forms on Earth? Author William Gibson has recounted going to a lecture by a female anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in the late 70s. The anthropologist posited the idea that multinational corporations were the highest life form on Earth, which had a profound influence on Gibson's world view, and therefore on literature influenced by Gibson. Who was this anthropologist? I haven't been able to find out who she was.
posted by Kattullus to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
i was watching this this just the other day. it touches on this. i don't think it answers your question directly, but it may give you some pointers / names / terms to google. in particular, i think you're asking about trust societies (14:00). searching from that i found collective intelligence which has a list of influential writers. but i don't see a female anthropologist.

ok, so this degenerates into a mess of notes. maybe some will be helpful.

hmmm. reading around more, this "collective intelligence" seems to be fairly new. perhaps at around the time of "wisdom of the crowds" or whatever the book was called. seeing lots of stuff from around 2012. and gibson would have been earlier.

this has some references to earlier work - but all from men.

possible candidates: Elinor Ostrom; Anita Wolleey; any of these?.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:20 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

on further study, my candidates are rubbish, sorry.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:26 PM on July 5, 2015

Gibson talks about this lecture quite a bit in this recorded appearance (starts at about 29:00). There's more detail there than I remembered. He thinks the lecture was in 1977, that she was American, and that it was a part of a course called Anthropology 101. The lecturer may not necessarily have been an anthropologist. However, he does say she made the analogy between multinational corporations and slime molds, and that the starting point of the lecture was an intelligent, alien species visiting Earth and trying to figure out what the dominant life form was.
posted by Kattullus at 3:39 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and that analogy shows up in his short story New Rose Hotel:
Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who's come here to identify the planet's dominant form of intelligence. The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think he picks? I probably shrugged. The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form.
There's a similar point made somewhere in Neuromancer, though more obliquely.
posted by Kattullus at 3:48 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I posted the question (and included a link to this thread) to him via Twitter. He's @GreatDismal, if you're not already following him.
posted by jquinby at 5:10 PM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thanks, jquinby! Hopefully he remembers and answers.
posted by Kattullus at 12:00 AM on July 6, 2015

I'm not sure what's behind your question, so this may or may not be helpful. Nowhere in this comment do I offer a lead about who might have said that. But if you're asking because you're digging into views of corporations and organizations as living systems, maybe these things will be useful....

Whoever was giving that lecture was most likely drawing partly from work by the biologists Maturana and Varela (perhaps these ideas about "structure, organization, and process" as a view of living systems), and maybe the ideas of Niklas Luhmann. He had a lot to say about "social autopoiesis," from "gee those are good points" to "wow I wonder if you're taking it too far."

Here's a PDF of an academic paper that discusses Luhmann's ideas.

There's a woman named Marjatta Maula (at IBM?), who I'm told has applied these ideas to businesses. I haven't read her stuff, but here's her book on Amazon.

Most recently the biologist Fritjof Capra has been writing and speaking about "The Systems View of Life," and includes serious comments about viewing social systems and organizations as living systems. Here's the book, and here on YouTube is a really nice condensed version in the form of a lecture at Schumacher College.

Good hunting to you.
posted by mrettig at 7:23 AM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder if you might be able to contact UBC's Anthropology department and see if they have records on file for visiting lecturers? They have a pretty robust archive regarding the department at the Museum of Anthropology so it might be worth a try!
posted by thebots at 9:55 AM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

My Google dabbling doesn't answer your question, but... M. Patricia Marchak was teaching Sociology at UBC at the time. (Back then, anthropology and sociology were a single department in the faculty of arts, Anthropology 100 and Sociology 100 were the same course.) Her first book, published in 1979, was In Whose Interests: An Essay on Multinational Corporations in a Canadian Context.

While I doubt that she's the lecturer Gibson is remembering--not a visiting professor; not American--the table of contents does have a "Suggestions for Further Reading" section at the end that might point the way.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 12:45 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

thebots: I wonder if you might be able to contact UBC's Anthropology department and see if they have records on file for visiting lecturers?

Worth a shot! I've sent the anthropology department an e-mail.
posted by Kattullus at 3:22 PM on July 6, 2015

So far, no reply from the anthropology department. Anyone have any other ideas?
posted by Kattullus at 12:41 AM on July 11, 2015

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