Theories of “mind” for corporations

Jack Saint recently made a video remarking on Netflix, and how Netflix appeared to be criticizing itself. He was talking about the show Dahmer, which Jack Saint felt was exploitative. And then an episode of Black Mirror appeared to make the same point by portraying an exploitative documentary that was obviously in reference to Dahmer. I will not comment on either show because I don’t like TV enough to watch the stuff, and I only really enjoy watching youtubers talk about TV I don’t watch.

However, I do have an opinion on the supposed hypocrisy of Netflix, for putting out two television shows that thematically contradict each other. When a corporation like Netflix is hypocritical, that’s obviously quite unlike individual hypocrisy. It’s not a single individual saying something and then doing a different thing. It’s two groups of individuals who disagree with each other despite their common affiliation. The Dahmer creators don’t think it’s exploitative (or don’t care), and the Black Mirror creators do. The executives above them don’t care enough to intervene either way. There’s no real hypocrisy on an individual level.

So in my opinion, it doesn’t really make sense to criticize corporations for hypocrisy. We can criticize them for being wrong. If some individuals in the company are right and others are wrong, the problem isn’t inconsistency, the problem is being wrong. I also think this is true for individuals, but it’s goes doubly for corporations since corporate inconsistency doesn’t actually reflect inconsistency in any single individual.

Relatedly, I take issue with the way we talk about corporations. On the right, people talk about “virtue signalling”, in reference to insincere attempts to demonstrate virtue. As I’ve remarked time and time again, the name is ironic, because in game theory, that is the opposite of what “signalling” means. Signalling does not refer to deceptive communication, it specifically refers to reliable communication. Signalling is not guaranteed to be true, but incurs a real cost if what it communicates is deceptive. I think people on the right haven’t considered the possibility that anyone might sincerely express progressive virtues.

On the other hand, people on the left express convergent complaints about corporations. For example they criticize “rainbow capitalism”–when companies put out rainbow versions of their logos, but they only do it for PR, they don’t believe it enough to take real action

I think in both cases, people adopt a theory of mind for corporations that doesn’t entirely make sense, because corporations aren’t people. A corporation doesn’t have a mind, it has minds plural. When a corporation expresses sympathy for some progressive cause, it is neither a sincere nor deceptive reflection of their intentions, because a corporation is made up of many people who have different intentions from one another.

I suspect that more often than not, corporate expressions of progressive values reflect the sincere intentions of some individuals within the corporation. However, those expressions are mediated by the censorship and oversight from other parts of the corporation.

For instance, the rainbow logos may be the result of some initiative by some legitimately passionate employees. The original intention isn’t just PR, but it gets approved because it aligns with the company’s PR goals. However, if those same employees suggested some sort of charity drive for a trans organization, leadership might put a stop to it because they think it’s bad PR, or they don’t want to spend the money. Or they might approve of it. If employees ever dream of more radical changes in the system, they may not even bother advancing the proposal since obviously the company won’t go along with that.

In short, the extent to which companies take action is reflective of both employee initiative and leadership approval.  I don’t think that company expressions of progressive values are completely meaningless, but they ought to be interpreted through this lens.

In general, I think the perspective on the left is more accurate, because they place the focus on companies taking real action. Whereas on the right, they’re overly focused on sincerity or insincerity, concepts that don’t actually make much sense in the context of corporations.

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