Forget Terminator and Skynet: The machines are already in control

Giant, computerized corporations and agencies are too big for humans to stop

Posted Apr 22, 2011

In the world of the Terminator series, yesterday--April 21, 2011--was the day Skynet, the government computer network that had just achieved artificial intelligence and figured out computers really should rule the world, supposedly triggered a nuclear holocaust to wipe those pesky humans off the face of the Earth.

It didn't happen. Duh. We're all still alive and kicking on April 22--six billion, nine hundred and thirteen million of us, according to today's US Census Bureau count--needy, aggressive, wasteful, and fully capable of wiping ourselves out without help from Microsoft. The Economist published a somewhat snide commentary to mark the occasion, implying that networks such as Skynet were a figment of paranoid liberal imagination, and that smart machines were no more harmful to humans than vacuum cleaners or iPhones. We should all relax, was the message. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg, James Cameron's dystopia, were all just a bad dream.

Not so fast. Sure, computers are still a long way from achieving intelligence. But in a way, what Terminator, with a lot of other fictional works (from William Gibson's Neuromancer to the Warsawsky twins' Matrix) warned about has already happened. Non-human entities have taken over our lives. They are not smart, they are not even conscious. But they are life forms, and they are threatening our existence.

What they are is large organizations: public, private and in between. Giant federal and state agencies, multinational corporations, massive NGOs. These are entities so huge and complex we have no way to grasp, let alone control them. They fulfil all the criteria of life: they reproduce (outsource), take and defend territory (mergers), excrete waste (pollutants) which in many cases poisons the lives of the humans working for them. They are banks "too big to fail," they are giant unions that exist to feather their own nests.

Not convinced? Maybe you depend on them for a paycheck, so you're thinking: How bad can they be? Well, take a look at the numbers.

There's plenty of objective evidence justifying the notion that a bureaucratic entity with more than 10,000 employees for all intents and purposes too big for humans to control. In the US, for the latest year data were available (2002), the Census Bureau says 913 giant companies met that standard of size. In that year, when all businesses lumped together accounted for $22 trillion dollars in sales, giant businesses accounted for $8.1 trillion. In other words, 913 massive companies, out of 22 million businesses total, accounted for over a third of all sales.

That doesn't include public institutions. We can estimate their monetary impact on the economy by combined tax revenues, which they turn around and use in various ways--the public-sector equivalent of "sales" (which doesn't include what they borrow to cover our budget deficit). Combined state and federal tax revenues were $3.3 trillion. Adding these to giant-corporation sales we come up with a rough estimate of (8.1 trillion plus 3.3 trillion equals) $11.4 trillion--exactly half of the combined sales impact of smaller entities. To give you a reference point, the gross domestic product for that year was $10.4 trillion. (These figures are not precisely comparable; however they give a perfectly valid idea of economic influence.)

Now put all this together: it appears half of our economy is run by entities we cannot control or rein in. These giant organizations are stitched together by computer networks that more or less efficiently connect sales and accounting sub-units, but cannot begin to plan for ten thousand humans, plus factories, offices in hundreds of different areas affecting a plethora of complex, vulnerable environments. The picture that results is of a runaway herd of dumb giants with quick-firing nerves of computer and broadband trampling madly around a landscape populated by tiny humans who have virtually no power over these giant beings yet utterly depend on them for their well-being.

So who needs Skynet? The machines have already taken control.

"I'll be back?" Not really. They're already here.