During the Jurassic period, some 150 to 200 million years ago, large dinosaurs ruled the land, and like all other life forms on this planet, they share a common cell structure that includes a genome which contains the entirety of each organism’s hereditary information. This tiny data storage bank therefore defines the organization of biomass into complex organisms and frequently into social structures involving multiple organisms. Sometimes it even defines symbiotic relationships between dissimilar creatures. In each case, through the process known as evolution, the size, shape and function of each organism and their social structure adapts, albeit slowly, to environmental pressures. Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, remarks in his essay on “Life in the Universe – 1996” that evolution accumulates data at a rate of about 1 bit per year, consistent with the current estimate of a dinosaur’s DNA as being several billion bits long and early life, consisting of simple cells, as being about 3.8 billion years old. It is the very stability of patterns in the environment, for example, the sun rising each day in the east that gives organisms their ability to adapt. Over millions of years, plants evolved the ability to point to the sun for more energy.
The process of extinction can be seen as occurring when an organism is unable to adapt to a rapidly changing environment which includes the pressures from competitive organisms. For example, it is believed that the rapid disappearance of large dinosaurs (and their currently believed evolution to birds) was driven by a cataclysm, likely a meteor strike, which in a short matter of time radically changed their environment. Many species simply did not have the time to evolve into new forms that could survive. Their evolutionary traits that gave them dominance up until that time were no longer an advantage. For dinosaurs, it’s likely that meteor strike and the “nuclear winter” that followed vastly reduced the available plant material and the subsequent collapse of the entire dinosaur community started with the herbivores, and then eventually, ended with the starvation of the T-Rex who fed upon them.
Humans also adapt to our environment for survival. But, unlike our neighboring creatures, as Hawking observes, through language we can pass hereditary information to our offspring far more efficiently. He estimates that we add some 100 billion bits of information each year just through the books we write. And while, most of this information doesn’t actually change our individual cell organization, it does change the organizational social structures that we create including governments, businesses and religions. Our social structures are defined through language in many ways, including: laws, management structures, religious tomes, and even marketing programs that influence and control the behavior of individual members of the group. And we observe that between groups there is both symbiosis and competition.
But, keep in mind that the “goal” is the same, namely that the stored data is used to promote the evolutionary success of the organism, whether it’s the individual organism that we’re referring to, or the organization of many individuals into a group. We have seen in recorded human history the emergence and demise of organizational structures, like fiefdoms and feudal estates that have become extinct and today are replaced by governments and corporations.
Wal-Mart, which is only 60 years old, is currently the largest public corporation in the world, measuring in at $258 Billion in revenue while some150 million years ago, the world’s largest dinosaur, the Bruhathkayosaurus, weighed in at around 220 tons. The mega-corporation is relatively recent in human history. Can it go the way of the Bruhathkayosaurus?
We live in interesting times. As observed by Ray Kurzweil in his book “The Singularity,” technology feeds upon itself and is therefore increasing its rate of change to levels that are unimaginable. There was a 25 year gap between the invention of the telephone in 1876 and Marconi’s discovery of wireless communication in 1899. A shoe manufacturer back in the early 1900s would have had more than fifty years to adapt its business model to the use of the telephone before being threatened with extinction. But look around you today. New technological inventions are appearing daily. Many, like social networking, are still not understood in their potential for changing business models. It is not a huge leap of science fiction to believe that eventually, for example, the Internet will be integrated effectively into every business model, whether it’s a Wal-Mart or a local garage. Yet, we have trouble however anticipating whether we’re thinking about adaptation times of tens of years or just a few. But there is no doubt that whatever it is, it’s getting shorter.
Observing evolutionary changes and extinctions has never been possible for humans. Our lifetimes are simply too short. But that is changing. The rapid changes in our environment that are driven by technology are occurring within time scales that are going to modify organizational models and force the extinction of structures that are unable to adapt. It’s likely that many large institutions are simply, like the dinosaur, unable to change quickly enough to survive.
It’s quite possible that the industrial revolution of 300 or so years, along with contemporary concepts of governance which are roughly the same age and even religious institutions that are measured in thousands of years are all teetering on the edge of their own existence simply because in an age of the democratization of information and universality of communication, their structures are no longer optimum or even relevant. We may be nearing the end of the era of the mega-corporation and its extinction may occur right before our eyes.