Origin of Megacorporations, The

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Megacorporations are immense meta-organizations that once shaped much of Terragen life, especially from the 11th to the 27th centuries AT. Some historians cite such organizations as the East India Company in the centuries BT on Old Earth as early predecessors demonstrating many of the attributes of the later megacorps. In any case, the true megacorps arose much later, evolving out of the mercantile conglomerate corporations of the Interplanetary Age, some of whom themselves developed from large multinational corporations from the Information Age and earlier.

These corporations were amongst the most powerful institutions modosophonts ever developed. As nation-states gradually declined in influence relative to other institutions from the Information Age onwards, the big corporations helped fill the political vacuum and in many ways began to resemble nations themselves; buying, owning, and regulating large areas of land and providing services for the people within them from internal companies. Beyond commercial and territorial interests, many large corporations became practically supranational, beholden to their stakeholders (which ranged from a share purchasing electorate to committees of experts and technocrats) and acting to further the goals of said stakeholders at every level of society.

The Interplanetary Age saw great disruption to the economic models of the previous centuries. Automation was gradually eroding the bedrock of capitalism as demand for sophont labour fell with each passing decade. Many nations implemented forms of basic income to cope with this, but social tensions grew between those that could gain work for more resources and those that could not. One part of the issue was expensive augmentation treatments; those with jobs were more able to pay for the augments that made them even more competitive for the work remaining. Whilst groups like the New Economy Movement attempted to construct novel economies for the new era, some of the age's large corporations took a different approach. These corporations enjoyed vast profits per employee capita; consequently each could afford to provide basic material and informational needs to millions for free. It became common in the late 100s for some large corporations to offer free basic homes, products, and services in exchange for some promises of responsibility (such as enrollment in a university sponsored by the corporation, or a willingness to accept a job if one became available). This relationship was referred to as "clientship" and many preferred it to the basic services offered by their national governments. Some corporations enacted these programs from a sense of charity, often to burnish their own reputations among potential customers; others as a way of gaining influence and a pool of indebted people from which to draw employees when needed. The 220s saw this competition rise to a new level, as the major corporations became military as well as economic powers. The following decades saw three Belt-based and five Cislunar corporations demonstrate a nuclear capability.

Although originally under the control of baselines, tweaks, and superiors, many of the big corporations came to be guided by AI. Initially this was in a limited capacity due to a combination of mistrust and various difficulties of interaction, but as the decades passed more and more corporate boards appointed artificial minds into influential advisor positions. Eventually, as AIs consolidated power behind the scenes, the control of each corporation slipped more and more from biont hands.

The mid-3rd century a.t. was a time of rapid evolution and change for the conglomerates. Of particular note is how the Cislunar and Belt-based corporations emerged as more tightly-integrated entities during this time. Memes of corporate identity and loyalty were more firmly embedded into corporate members and clients. The Belt corporations in particular had a serious disadvantage in the struggle with their Cislunar rivals due to the small size of the Belt population. To offset this, the Belt corporations embraced extensive memgineering and by the 280s the difference between corporation, society, and family in the minds of their employees had disappeared almost entirely. The Belt corporations became the Belt Zaibatsus with each Belter having a fierce loyalty to their particular Zaibatsu and defections becoming almost unknown. Despite these radical measures, the Belt corporations still remained relatively minor powers next to the great Cislunar postnationals.

By the early 4th century, the conglomerates were expanding throughout the solar system, gaining greater percentages of colony GDP, and growing in power even more. But their old power bases were eroding as the balance shifted from the Orbitals, the Inner Worlds, and the Belt asteroids they controlled to the Genetekker Republics around the gas giants, and claim jumping by rival corporations only worsened the situation. The Solsys Golden Age in the 5th and early 6th centuries saw continued inter-corporate competition and intrigue, as well as attempts - often unsuccessful - to control access to newer advances in technologies such as nanoassemblers and gengineering.

The 6th century saw the unleashing of the Technocalypse and in the ensuing chaos many of the old interplanetary corporations disappeared. Many, but not all. A number of AIs had the foresight to push out their center of operations, or at least major backup nodes, to the Kuiper Belt and beyond. These AIs (and their associated bionts) survived the Technocalypse, and a few went on to ascend to the First Singularity in the ensuing centuries. Together with the AIs that had remained, corporate AIs formed alliances that, at around the turn of the first millennium a.t., would lead to the establishment of the Federation of Sophonts. Later the AIs were to contribute to the design of cheaper starships, including various amat and amat fusion designs, bringing the price of interstellar travel within the scope of the new generation of ever more state-like corporations, by now becoming true megacorps.

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Development Notes
Text by M. Alan Kazlev and Anders Sandberg; updated by Ryan B and Todd Drashner
Amended 17 October 2022 to fit updated megacorp topic page
Initially published on 10 June 2000.