Thursday, June 27, 2024

(Shadowrun) Corporate Download

Capitalism. We usually think of it as being about money. A select class of people will own the means of production, but that is only a means to an end. The goal is to get rich. To stack wealth on top of wealth so that your big number gets bigger. A self-sustaining cycle of year-over-year ROI, compounding with itself in exponential growth, forever. 

The problem with thinking of capitalism like that, though, is that it makes capitalism sound kind of silly. Is that the system we're living in? Are the people in charge really a bunch of out-of-touch weirdos that think a clever enough financialization scheme can outfox the laws of thermodynamics? Is all the environmental destruction, labor suppression, and enshitification of basic services really in the service of a goal that can be compared, unfavorably, to trying to get a video game high score? Is that why it seems like the rich can never have enough - because whatever number you've got, there's always a bigger one?

That can't be all there is to it. It feels like a leftist strawman. And it is . . . kind of. But it's an unintentional one, because the truth is worse. If massive wealth inequality were merely the absurd lovechild of too-narrow optimization and the animalistic part of the brain getting weird about rewards ("ooh, my income for last year was a billion dollars, but if I'd done X,Y, and Z it would have been 1.2 billion dollars - those damned endangered species, labor unions, and ungrateful customers stole 200 million dollars straight out of my pocket!") that's a problem that might be overcome. We could take Bezos gently aside, say, "hey, buddy, your hoarding is starting to be a real problem, you're hurting people unnecessarily - you could let your warehouse guys take breaks AND still earn 11 percent. You don't need that 13 percent if it comes at the price of human suffering."

Because if capitalism were really just about bigger numbers, then you could talk people into accepting smaller numbers. It wouldn't even be that hard. You could argue that two marshmallows is greater incentive than one marshmallow, and even that ten marshmallows is greater incentive than two. But a hundred marshmallows has a disproportionately small motivating effect, and a thousand marshmallows is practically the opposite of an incentive. When it comes to marshmallows or cars or (I learned this the hard way) roleplaying books - "more than you can ever personally use" is only a blessing when you've got friends to share them with. If the value of money were purely a matter of quantity, it would be perceived in exactly the same way.

But there is a horizon beyond which money stops being money. At some nebulous point (and it doesn't necessarily take a lot, it just takes having more), money becomes power. It is the ability to tell people what to do, to direct the collective resources of a community towards the ends you imagine. And that's what capitalism is really about. Its purpose is to shape the character of that transformation - to ensure that the power that comes from money remains hierarchical. That's why the ultra-rich seem so resistant to the power of reason. Because relative quantities are continuous - 11 percent ROI is 84 percent as good as 13 percent ROI - but position in a hierarchy is discrete. You're either at the top or you aren't. And to share the power that comes from being at the top of a hierarchy is to, in fact, undermine the very concept of a hierarchy. You can't be content with less, because there's no less to be had.

And that's why it actually makes a lot of sense when Corporate Download tells us that the megacorporations of 2060 all have private armies.

Well, okay, maybe not perfect sense, but at least a kind of sense. Certainly, enough sense that I shouldn't be wasting my time trying to crunch the numbers on the Red Samurai or the Desert Wars (yeah, of course you're going to get enough PPV income to turn a profit on deploying advanced military units to the most barren and isolated parts of the planet, the novelty of that isn't going to immediately wear off, for sure). The point of having a corporate army isn't to turn a profit, it's to wield the power you gain from having an army. It's the same calculus that changes wealth to capital, but without the deniability. 

Although it can still feel like a plot-hole. Despite my cynicism, there's a part of me that thinks the megacorporations exist to make money for their shareholders. That Elon buying Twitter was a bad business deal and not a confirmation that deca-billlions are merely a number on a balance sheet, but the ability to control an entire community, to make people conform to your desires is the entire point of the exercise. On some level, "number get bigger" makes more sense, feels more human.

And realistically, it's probably the case that neither shadowrunning nor counter-shadowrunning security precautions are all that efficient at making the number get bigger. How often is any particular location getting robbed that you can justify having a hellhound budget? How ramshackle is your in-house research that the addition of a single stolen datafile is going to noticeably goose your bottom line? Like, okay, we get it, you're rivals for the same market, now swap stock and sit on each others' boards already. This will-they/won't-they dance is getting old.

Of course, there wouldn't be much of a game if they did that, and despite Corporate Download including a "number get bigger" system ("hey guess what, every six months in-game we're going to roll a dice pool and fill in a 10 x 13 grid in order to model the fluctuations of the fictional stock market," said the setting book for a game about thrilling heist capers) what Shadowrun really wants is to depict the sort of action capitalism where the business you're robbing encourages on-site gunplay instead of a more insurance-friendly "observe and report" policy. That it, in the process, offered a well-observed mask-off depiction of the ultra-wealthy may or may not be coincidence.

I have to assume that it was at least partially intentional, though I'm reluctant to commit 100 percent to the "deliberate satire" theory because the original lineup of 8 canon megacorporations was very clearly not premeditated. Between this book and Blood in the Boardroom, the metaplot's course correction is not subtle. The original Big Eight had a stunning five Japanese corporations, and good luck picking any of them out of a lineup.

Side note - it's actually kind of funny. "If you ask a group of runners to name all ten megacorps, each one would forget about Yamatetsu." "Even the average shadowrunner knows little about Shiawase, possibly less than any other megacorporation." "Apart from near-constant rumors of its Yakuza connections . . . little has been said about Mistuhama." You can actually see the gears turning. We are right in the middle of a campaign to give these guys more of a personality than "is Japanese."

I'm going to call it a work in progress. The Big Ten featured in this book are more distinct and diverse than the original Big Eight, but a lot of the niche-carving takes the form of personal drama between canon NPCs. We can call this a point for the "capitalism is about the personal power of the ownership class" theory, but there is only so much I can care about Lucien Cross's and Leonard Aurelius's feud with Damien Knight. And Richard Villiers could be a compelling villain in the "finance bro without a conscience" vein, but Novatech is bland at every level (that's probably why it did not survive to see the current edition).

Overall, I'd say Corporate Download is perched awkwardly between being a setting book and being an enemy book. It definitely tells us more about the world of Shadowrun, c. 2060, but the story is split between a high-level overview of boardroom politics and an outsider's view of what it's like to steal from the corporations or commit crimes on their behalf. There's a large excluded middle of just the average day-to-day experiences of employees and customers. And maybe that's okay, because it's hardly exciting rpg content, but the lore nerd in me is slightly disappointed. Don't just tell me Aztechnology owns Stuffer Shack, help me imagine the experience of going into a Stuffer Shack. The outliers are going to be a lot more meaningful when I understand what they're diverging from.

Don't call that a ding, though. Shadowrun is hardly unique in its preference for high-stakes action adventure over mundane worldbuilding minutiae, and honestly the only reason I'm so interested in the first place is because it's done such a good job getting me invested.

Ukss Contribution: Zurich Orbital Gemeinschaft Bank. There's something about the world's most powerful financiers being literally disconnected from earthly concerns that strikes me as a perfect metaphor. 

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