I know I’m going to regret this … and I promise, I will connect it to practical business concerns.

Last week’s possibly satirical discussion of non-human entities we’ve created and given power over us to (“Who needs Skynet,” 2/12/2018) led to a lively discussion in the Comments section, including a controversy in juridical circles as to whether, when the First Amendment mentions “the press,” the protections are supposed to apply to the technology and its use or to the institutions commonly referred to as “the press.”

Or both.

My own conclusion: Failing to recognize the press-as-institution puts us at serious risk. Imagine politicians or lobbyists who don’t like what a member of the press-as-institution publishes. Without imposing any restriction on any individual’s use of press technology to disseminate information or opinions, those politicians could pass laws that drive that press organization into bankruptcy in retaliation.

But, if we do want to recognize the press-as-institution and protect it from governmental retaliation we’re faced with the fascination challenge of defining it.

Strict originalists face an even more challenging issue: As written, the First Amendment only protects speech and publication. It doesn’t even mention the activities needed to discover and gather the information the news media publishes.

Dumbass opinions, in this view, would enjoy constitutional protections. The careful research needed to publish accurate information would not.

Which got me thinking about The Post, its recounting of how the Pentagon Papers were brought to light, and how, in the end, revealing how the American public was misled into the Vietnam War arguably strengthened our government in the long term.

Which gets me to a point I’d like you to entertain even if you disagree with the above conclusion.

Unlike our government, there’s nothing in how corporations are chartered, organized, and run that provides any protections that would allowing employees to play a press-like role in their management.

I’m not talking about whistleblowers and the discovery of corporate wrongdoing. I’m talking about something far more mundane and potentially useful.

Imagine you discover a function within the company you work for is guilty of chronic but concealed idiocy. Nothing illegal or immoral, mind you. Just stupid.

Speaking of stupid, now imagine you try to bring the issue to the attention of a member of the ELT (Executive Leadership Team for those of you who haven’t heard the term before). Think they’ll thank you for your trouble?

Not most business executives, who largely rely on their chain of command for most of their information about What’s Going On Out There, supplemented by management dashboards and computer-generated reports.

Which often means they know much more about unimportant matters than about, for example, the stupidity factory you uncovered.

As I’ve mentioned from time to time, one of the most important skills for any business leader to develop is organizational listening. In the past I’ve suggested developing a variety of mechanisms, ranging from formal metrics to informal internal networking to accomplish this.

But this whole conversation about what constitutes the press leads me to wonder if a business would benefit by establishing the internal equivalent of the press-as-institution.

I’m not talking about adding a First-Amendment-like policy to the manual. While the results might be fun to watch, the most likely result would be a very poor signal-to-noise ratio.

I’m talking about establishing a formal internal news-gathering function, focused on discovering what managers don’t want the ELT to know and that ELT members might not want to know.

One of the most important (and most easily abused) functions performed by the press-as-institution is deciding what information is worthy of publication. Whether you get your information from newspapers or broadcast or cable news, you rely on them not only for the information they provide itself, but also to let you know what subjects you should be paying attention to.

A corporate internal news-gathering function would play a similar role. It would be a known place for employees at all levels to report what they’re aware of and think the ELT should be aware of, without incurring personal risk. It would also be responsible for sorting through it all, deciding what matters, and, when the situation calls for it, researching an issue in more depth.

It would have a regular slot on the ELT agenda — it wouldn’t need to fight for air time.

The ELT would be responsible for paying attention — for reading its metaphorical newspaper. And for instituting and enforcing the one rule critical for this organization’s success:

Don’t shoot the messenger.


This isn’t something I’ve tried with a client and can attest to. I know of no business that’s tried this. If you do, please post a Comment to tell the rest of us about it. If you don’t, post a Comment anyway.

We humans are giving up control over our lives to non-human entities that don’t have our best interests at heart. No, that isn’t strong enough. We’re inviting it.

This isn’t some bizarre conspiracy theory. It isn’t some sensational but unlikely rise-of-the-machines here-comes-Skynet fear mongering.

It’s a conclusion that’s inescapable if you’re even minimally aware of current events. Consider:

Factoid #1: Not only humans are persons

Starting with Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad and continuing recently with Citizens United v FEC, corporations now have the legal right to influence our elections, on the theory that corporations are persons too, or, if not persons entirely, than imbued with significant levels of personhood.

I’m not going to argue with SCOTUS. But I do have a question: Shouldn’t reciprocity reign? If corporations are people, why can’t all people be corporations? In addition to a lower tax rate, we’d get more deductions, too. After all, when a corporation buys a car it can depreciate it on its tax returns. Human persons can’t. Why not? Because we aren’t allowed to be corporations.

Factoid #2: Algorithms

In case it’s escaped your notice, the stock market has been what’s euphemistically described as “volatile” recently. Those who write about such things are calling it a correction, as they think the market was overvalued, not that many of them said so before the volatility began. But some are also suggesting that algorithmic trading has had a lot to do with, if not the market’s decline in value, then very likely the wild swings we’ve seen during the decline.

Algorithmic trading is something done by non-human entities. Automata. And the decisions made by these automata have a significant influence on our economy and financial wellbeing.

Factoid #3: The rise of the ‘bots

Recent research reveals that more than 25 million Tweeters are actually ‘bots — 9 % or more, which in the last election accounted for an estimated one out of every five political tweets or more.

Are these automata influencing things? After all, just retweeting something … or Liking it if we’re talking about Facebook … isn’t an act of persuasion, merely an act of repetition. It makes someone’s voice louder, not more convincing. Except that it does, in two respects.

First, ‘bots don’t announce “Hey, this is just one ‘bots’ opinion!” in their retweets. They pose as humans, and they adopt a demeanor that says they’re the same sort of people as their intended audience. That people like themselves think in a certain way is, to many people, quite a strong influencer. ‘Bots might not broadcast debate-team-worthy rhetoric, but they do broadcast the message “Here’s what members-in-good-standing of our tribe believe.”

When 25 million of them broadcast that message, many of those who want to be Members of Tribe in good standing will find themselves thinking the same way without spending much time to ponder, let alone to independently research the topic, whatever it is.

Worse, they’re likely to become even more tribal through the same dynamic.

Even those who aren’t tribalists are likely to be influenced by Twitter ‘bots, too, because when to all appearances 25 million people appear to have adopted an opinion … more when you add tweets by actual humans to the numbers … it legitimizes a view that reasonable human beings might otherwise consider utterly preposterous.

So here’s what I’m thinking: If everyone who lives in a democracy is concerned about covert Russian influence over our elections … and that certainly isn’t an unreasonable concern to have … then shouldn’t we be even more concerned that increasingly, non-humans are taking control of our economy, politics, and lives?

I suggest some civic-minded lawyer bring a fundamental question to SCOTUS, namely, what are the boundaries of the rights of non-human persons? Start with the First Amendment and whether it applies only to human persons, or whether all entities, human and non-human alike, should enjoy its protections.

The existing carve-out for the press should certainly be maintained, although what constitutes “the press” might need a bit of clarification.

Beyond that, though, it should be neither difficult nor controversial to insist that only we human-being-style persons have the unrestricted right to express ourselves.

Sure, if aliens from another planet or human-like androids become our friends and neighbors we might need to revisit all this, just as the United Federation of Planets did when Commander Data’s humanity was called into legal question.

But we aren’t at that crossroads just yet. Right now we find ourselves faced with just one last question: Is this supposed to be satire, or should you take it seriously?

I only wish I knew.