A delicate balance must be established between interconnection and autonomy
Here's an image that's gotten wide exposure in the past week or so: In their article The network of global corporate control, Vitali et al. mapped out the global network of ownership that constitutes what some would call the Oligarchy. This, in other words, is a chart of the famous 1% who control 50% of the world's wealth.
It's an interesting chart, because it shows several different kinds of information. The size of the dots represents companies' operating revenue; colour indicates their influence on the network. The large red dots are the companies that run the world.
This might seem a little abstract, so here's a zoom-in that shows how the network works:
Now what's interesting to me here is not the usual paranoid recognition that a very small number of entities control the world; 'control' implies they can actually steer the course of events, which is not the case. They have disproportionate influence, and that's not a good thing; but control? Nobody's actually in control.
No, what's interesting and disturbing to me is the level of interconnection itself. In my 2005 novel Lady of Mazes I introduced a future world where interconnections on all levels of the economy and society were carefully pruned by the all-powerful anecliptics. These non-human powers worked tirelessly to prevent critical states of interconnection, where a tiny event at one point in the network can suddenly cascade through the whole thing and realign everything.
(These are sometimes called sandpile models, because they reflect the same physics as sandpiles: you can drop grains of sand one at a time onto the pile, and most of the time, nothing will happen. The pile just grows. Then all of a sudden, you drop one grain and the whole pile collapses. Why does this happen? It has to do with self-organized criticality.)
When the 2008 economic meltdown happened I felt like Cassandra, because you could watch the collapse of the over-connected financial network in real-time. All kinds of causes have been advanced for the collapse, but really, any specific cause for the failure of a given node of the network is secondary to the fact that the failures propagated. This is because the network was over-connected and had reached a critical state; the same thing is happening again.
So, my interest in this model is not because it shows that a small set of companies 'run the world;' it's because it shows that we live in what Brian Cantwell Smith calls a frictionless 'gearworld' where turning any gear, no matter how small, anywhere in the world, may cause everything else to revolve.
In Lady of Mazes networking limits called 'firebreaks' were used to prevent interconnections reaching a critical state, and influences from spreading too far. In a New Scientist article on the above-cited study, George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a complex systems expert, is said to have advised a tax on interconnectivity for corporations. That would be a kind of firebreak in the Lady of Mazes sense. We need something like this now, not just to prevent a consolidation of power but to prevent the vulnerable collapse of a sandpile-model of the world economy.
Distinguishing types of interconnection
The problem with production networks under modern capitalism is that they are actually very vulnerable to minor shifts in end-consumers switching to alternative suppliers. Companies begin to haemorrhage money when this occurs even if the shift is only 1% or 2% of their customer base. This means companies have to aggressively seek dominance, and that mean they optimise to the point where it is better (up to a point) to own a supplier of prior factors in the chain. The consolidated network of 'control' in that article is just the numbers game of capitalism doing its thing. It would have happened under the circumstances without anyone conspiratorially seeking world emperor status. Now the issue is that even this model is obsolete, because the maturity of economies isn't supporting the rates of profit flow needed to sustain it.
In this case it isn't the interconnectivity per se that is the issue, but that the rules according to which it was constructed are not the same as those needed to sustain it. This was actually the underlying driver for the financial bubble generation between the dot com bust of ~2000 and the financial crash of 2008. A pile of financial 'engineering' took place to try and sustain an obsolete pattern.
The 2008 financial crash was more like a case where everyone had found a way to stretch one elastic band more and more around more and more hooks, but in the end there was still only one elastic band. It was less about where the weak spots were rather than just finally reaching the moment of catastrophic overstretch.
So there are two types of interconnection at work here, one bred to try and hold the other together. Trouble is the basis of the production network is no longer sound enough.