Lately I’ve been exploring They Rule, an interactive database of the largest American corporations and their interwoven boards of directors. The site is an example of what creator Josh On (from the Futurefarmers collective) calls “database visualization.”
They Rule opens with these words:
They sit on boards of the largest companies in America
Many sit on government committees
They make decisions that affect our lives
Quite simply, the site allows you to map connections between various corporations, using members of their boards as nodes, or relay points. It’s Six Degrees of Separation for multinational corporations. One popular map, for example, documents the connections between Halliburton and major media outlets. Aylwin B. Lewis, we find, is on Halliburton’s board of directors and Disney’s board too. Meanwhile William R. Howell sits on the boards of Halliburton and Pfizer. On Pfizer’s board is William H. Gray, III, who in turn is also on Viacom’s board. There is a direct line, then, from a war-profiteering energy conglomerate to the owner of MTV and CBS news.
They Rule makes no claim that there is a grand cabal among Halliburton directors, controlling the mass media. There is no conspiracy here. Nonetheless, it is unsettling to see so much corporate power concentrated in the hands of so few individuals. It seems that above the daily lives of most Americans there is a free-floating network of corporate entities and wealthy individuals to which we have no access. They, in turn, have little accountability to us. Their chief loyalties are to each other.
Another revealing map is Why Citicorp Really Rules, which shows a diverse group of banks, government institutions, media outlets, and consumer retailers, at the center of which is Citigroup, the world’s largest bank. (Not far behind is JP Morgan Chase and Bank One, who will soon be merging into one bank.)
The best part of They Rule is that you or I can create and save our own database visualizations for others to see. That is, we can archive these connections, print the maps, or email them to others. Some of these user-created maps can be truly informative, like the maps I refer to above. Others can be misleading, such Time Warner Has Their Hands in Everything. This map shows how members of Time Warner’s board also sit on the boards of companies like Dell, Chevron, or FedEx. This much is true, of course. What is misleading is the map’s title. Time Warner the company doesn’t have its hands in everything. Its people do. It’s essential to remember that behind every faceless corporate entity there are people. This is at once discouraging and liberating. Discouraging, because you begin to realize that there exists a class of people who seem untouchable, a world unto themselves, making decisions based on bottom lines rather than less tangible motivations, like dignity and sustainability. Liberating, because you begin to realize that power, whenever it is held by mortals, is fluid and transformable. There is space for resistance whenever humans are involved.
They Rule is one front of this resistance.