Shadowrun and the rise of the mega-corporation

Choose Your Enemies Carefully - Robert N. Charrette

I really did like the Shadowrun Universe - it was new and it was different. While it was not the first game that merged magic with technology most of the other games that did so were either set in a post apocalyptic world (such as Gamma World and Rifts) or were just plain stupid (though the one example that does come to mind I simply cannot remember the name). However Shadowrun is a cyberpunk world, a world of big cities and commerce, a world that had changed but in many cases is still very much the same. With Shadowrun I could turn my favourite Hollywood action movies (Terminator II comes to mind) into adventures in this world without too much difficulty.

This book is set in London, and the England of 2050 is a land pretty much covered with houses (though I have recently been to England and it really does not look like that, though I sometimes wonder if people underestimate the size of the Earth) and is ruled by the Druids. They still have a king, but when I was running Shadowrun games, I had a different England story which that involved the king becoming an orc which gave rise to a lot of political intrigue where the PCs had to uncover a plot to remove him from the throne - a plot involving republicans and people who simply do not like orcs.

In many ways Shadowrun is very much ahead of its time. It is not the idea that magic has entered the world, though over the past 20 years I do notice that us Westerners are developing a more spiritual outlook to our lives (and while I do believe in magic, I believe that it is very subtle, much like sympathetic magic – look it up on Wikipedia). However, it is the idea of the Matrix, cyberware, and the mega-corporations that are strangely prescient of our modern times. I will look at each of these as I review the other books in the series, but in this instance I will explore the nature of the Mega-Corporation.

When the original book indicates that the years 1990 to 2010 resulted in the rise of the mega-corporation as a political entity, it is almost mind boggling how true they are. I remember speaking to a friend in the early 90s who indicated that the only true mega-corporation would be the Rand Corporation. How much as changed (though in many cases it has stayed very much the same). Corporations have always wielded influence, and in reality, the first true mega-corporation would have been the British East India Company (though that operated under charter from the British Government). Now however it is difficult not to look and see a mega-corporation with in spitting distance, though not all of them are easily seen from the shop front.

The power of the corporation today is that they can operate like their own countries. The concept of extra-territoriality exists, which is where the national law does not operate in areas owned by the corporation. We do currently have private property laws which mean that a shopping centre (Westfield) can dictate what the customers see and do when they enter their malls. By stepping into a shopping centre these days you are stepping into a different world were different laws apply. However, we go over to developing countries (such as Indonesia) and we have export processing zones. While they are on Indonesian soil, they do not come under Indonesian law, they do not pay taxes, have no fair work or safety laws, and the authorities are not permitted on the land without an invitation even if a crime has been committed.

In many ways even in some developed countries the influence that corporations have on government is in immense. Australia is indeed a lucky country in that there are strong sets of regulations, and while corporations may object to the introduction of fair work and workplace safety laws, they are forced to accept it if they want to do business in Australia, and while Australia may have a small population, we have things that they want, and we have a population with money, so if they want our money, they have to play by our rules (though this is starting to change, especially with Big Ears stating that Australia is open for business).

However, consider that there are at least two Australian companies (News Ltd and BHP) that have risen to the status of mega-corporation. BHP is Australia's biggest company by market capitalisation, and operates pretty much everywhere in the world. While it may be small compared to Xstrata (Swiss) or Vale (Brazil) they are still a massive company that can wield a tremendous amount of power. News Ltd, probably known better as Fox, was actually born in my hometown (Adelaide), and the owner, Rupert Murdoch, has risen to become one of the most powerful media moguls in the world.

In this way I find Shadowrun to be very good: it was warning us of the dangers that can come about by giving corporations unfettered authority (something which they do not have). While the US government is pretty impotent when it comes to regulating companies (if you put through a law that is needed, they object, and we quickly find it repealed, however it will take huge protests from the population to get a law we like passed). However America is blinded by the principle that we are all responsible for our own destiny though if a bank deceives you into taking out a loan that you cannot afford, it is not the banks fault, they are a mindless, soulless, entity providing a service; rather it is the consumer's fault because they should have been more alert in how that interacted with the company. Once again, Australia has a Trade Practices Act that is rigorously enforced.