A Brief History of the Corporation

I’ve been captivated by Venkatesh Rao’s A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100 for months and go back for a re-read every so often. I’ll put some of the most interesting bits (to me) in this post for easier retrieval, but you should really read the whole thing.

Per capita productivity is about efficient use of human time. But time, unlike space, is not a collective and objective dimension of human experience. It is a private and subjective one. Two people cannot own the same piece of land, but they can own the same piece of time. To own space, you control it by force of arms. To own time is to own attention. To own attention, it must first be freed up, one individual stream of consciousness at a time.

The Schumpeterian corporation was about colonizing individual minds. Ideas powered by essentially limitless fossil-fuel energy allowed it to actually pull it off. […]

The equation was simple: energy and ideas turned into products and services could be used to buy time. Specifically, energy and ideas could be used to shrink autonomously-owned individual time and grow a space of corporate-owned time, to be divided between production and consumption. Two phrases were invented to name the phenomenon: productivity meant shrinking autonomously-owned time. Increased standard of living through time-saving devices became code for the fact that the “freed up” time through “labor saving” devices was actually the de facto property of corporations. It was a Faustian bargain. […]

It is fairly obvious that Schumpeterian growth has been fueled so far by reserves of fossil fuels. It is less obvious that it is also fueled by reserves of collectively-managed attention.

For two centuries, we burned coal and oil without a thought. Then suddenly, around 1980, Peak Oil seemed to loom menacingly closer.

For the same two centuries it seemed like time/attention reserves could be endlessly mined. New pockets of attention could always be discovered, colonized and turned into wealth.

Then the Internet happened, and we discovered the ability to mine time as fast as it could be discovered in hidden pockets of attention. And we discovered limits.

And suddenly a new peak started to loom: Peak Attention.