Rethinking Company Defaults in the Age of Digital Mistrust

I was attending a tech gathering some time back, and the conversation surrounded misinformation and what companies’ responsibilities are in this age of big data and automation. The room was in conversation, and I shared the idea of a D-corp: a data or digital rights-focused company. I’m not sure exactly what this entails, but as our culture looks for havens of trust and connection to real people in digital spaces, we need companies that will classify themselves as platforms of truth in both content and identity. 

But to create new types of corporations, it’s helpful to understand the past ways of operating. Looking at the past reminds us that culture always changes, even when it feels stuck.

Everything Designed Can Be Redesigned

In programming, defaults are the starting values given to a variable. Defaults are often ignored or unseen and once they are made, they are often never changed. 

We live in a world where so much is designed. Society and our lives are filled with defaults. Water goes in plastic bottles until it comes in a box, milk comes from cows until it’s from oats and nuts, and cars run on gas until they don’t.

Until someone looks at the defaults of a system and questions them, nothing can change. Realizing defaults are designed is the first step to recognizing we can redesign them.

One challenge is that we often don’t see the defaults around us. I wonder if recognizing at a default makes change inevitable?

Defaults matter and defaults are daring us to change them.

The Myth of Profit Importance Above All Else 

The first corporation as we think of them today was formed in 1372 – a French mill company that lasted until 1946 when it was nationalized (though continued). 

Yet, corporates have their history in the corporation of cities, towns, and abbeys. Corporations were initially formed in Britain by the Royal Charter or Companies Acts with a specific purpose, such as colonizing America. The most well-known of these corporations was the Dutch East India Company, which was established in 1602. It was a British government-created monopoly on the spice trade (and opium). 

Then, in the 1800s, Britain and the United States created laws allowing companies to be registered by citizens. Government charters and acts were no longer needed for each company, and private groups could begin creating companies for their own aims. 

Corporations have a bit of a muddy history; people have collaborated for a long time.

In the U.S. there is the idea that a corporation must legally maximize profits. There is a Supreme Court opinion that made the case that: “modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so.” (Supreme Court opinion) — however this is an opinion and not a description of what the law actually is.

The point is that the default purpose of corporations does not have to be profit above all other purposes, even when the pressure in our culture pushes us in this direction – but we may need more policy and legal tools to allow for this.

Future Default of Corporation Concept

Since 2010, the U.S. has allowed a new cooperation structure called the Benefit Corporation. These B-corps, as they’re called, support the focus of a three-fold bottom line: public benefit, sustainable value, and generating profit. 

It’s strange to think that a benefit corporation is not how the world worked until 2010, at least not legally or in the United States.

Could this infer that in the future the default company structure will be beneficial to society, and we will need a new name for companies that are not a benefit to society?

If B-corp was the default, then other corporations would have to be called a Non-Benefit Corporation?

With the rise of digital mistrust, it seems inevitable that the next company structure will involve a new kind of digital rights, maybe a D-corp, focused on trust and validation of identity, content, and software. Wishful thinking, maybe, but aspiring to change the status quo is the first step toward change.

Everything designed can be redesigned, and everything has a default, which means it’s all open to change. As makers, creative leaders, and digital founders, we can question the defaults set by the last generation of our peers and redesign the world to one that’s a little better.

Thanks for reading, if you have found other ideas in this same space please share I’m always curious to learn more, and optimistic that others are working on these kinds of challenges.

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Photos: Luca Bravo & Jiroe 

Also published on Medium.