EvilCo! 8 sinister sci-fi corporations (you could be working for soon)
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Infoworld.com.
Corporations make for excellent villains. Faceless, bureaucratic, and ruthlessly dedicated to the profit motive—or other nefarious agendas—they’re the ideal evil entities for modern society. As with robots and androids, we can project onto evil corporations all our fears and anxieties about inhuman powers beyond our control.
Science-fiction writers have been hip to this for a while. The secretive and sinister corporation has long been a go-to villain in sci-fi books, movies, TV shows, and video games. With few exceptions, depictions of these fictional corporations highlight the dystopia that can arise from technical innovations unchecked by ethical use and implementation.
Artificial intelligence, surveillance technology, Internet of things—as today’s emerging technologies further resemble that of science fiction, questions arise regarding the extent to which global capitalism can balance ethics and the profit motive. Here we take a look at eight infamous corporations from the annals of science fiction, along with affiliated developments in real-world business and technology. Think of it as a kind of gut check on what could happen if we turn off our sense of ethics the moment we walk through that office door.
Speaking of alien bioweapons, the futuristic firm of Weyland-Yutani is one of science fiction’s most deliciously evil corporate villains. Introduced in the classic 1979 space-horror freakout “Alien,” Weyland-Yutani is a pitiless multinational conglomerate with interests in mining, manufacturing, and the humanoid robots known as Synthetics. Throughout the “Alien” franchise’s dozens of films, video games, and novelizations, Weyland-Yutani has shown a gleeful willingness to further bioweapon R&D by sacrificing its employees to the dreaded xenomorphs.
Bioweapons research is, of course, a grim reality in the 21st century. Research is typically sponsored—and closely monitored—by nation-states in the name of military defense, and hundreds of private companies and labs are developing bioweapons around the globe. If you want to scare yourself, here’s a recent discussion on the issue.
Manufacturers of the dreaded “Terminator” series of hunter-killer robots, Cyberdyne is another heavyweight competitor in the arena of villainous sci-fi corporations. Details about the fictional company are fuzzy, thanks to the “Terminator” franchise’s fondness for temporal paradoxes and alternate timelines. But it’s generally agreed that the original Cyberdyne Systems was a simple robotics manufacturer before the artificial intelligence known as Skynet initiated a decidedly hostile corporate takeover.
Here’s where it gets a little spooky. Over in Japan, there’s an actual corporation named Cyberdyne—and yes, it makes robots. The company is most famous for the HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) powered exoskeleton, which the company hypes as “the world’s first cyborg-type robot.” Uh-oh.
“Back to the Future” has been back in the news recently, with the arrival—in our timeline—of Oct. 15, 2015. That’s the date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown time-travel to in “Back to the Future Part II,” released in 1989. In the altered timeline of that film, the dastardly Biff Tannen founds BiffCo Enterprises, using profits from his time-travel gambling scam. In several winking nods to the sci-fi trope of the evil corporation, BiffCo specializes in strip mines, toxic waste disposal, casinos—you get the idea.
For a goofy time-travel comedy, “Back to the Future Part II” turned out to be remarkably prescient in its conjecture on consumer technology circa 2015. The movie’s fast-forward timeline features fingerprint scanners, VR headsets, holographic displays, and aerial camera drones that are impressively similar to what we actually have now, not to mention the hoverboard ... or the self-tying shoes.
Bonus trivia: Archivists have recently uncovered the full Biff Tannen Museum footage from “Back to the Future Part II.”
International Genetic Technologies, Inc.
In author Michael Crichton’s original 1990 sci-fi novel “Jurassic Park,” the biotech company International Genetic Technologies, Inc.—or InGen—uses advanced genetic engineering techniques to clone dinosaurs from mosquito blood. Plans go famously sideways from there.
In the original book, InGen is depicted as a legitimate if secretive corporation with good intentions. The subsequent film adaptations, up to and including this summer’s “Jurassic World,” go further in exploring the recurring sci-fi theme of corporate hubris. When companies place profits over people, sooner or later you’re going to have dinosaurs chasing down Bryce Dallas Howard.
The “Jurassic” franchise is one of the most successful series in all of science fiction, and the story has solid foundations in actual technology. There are more than 2,500 biotech companies in the United States alone. We almost certainly have the technology to clone dinosaurs today, if we could only recover viable dinosaur DNA—an entirely different problem. But there may be another way. Recently, marquee paleontologist Jack Horner suggested that we could be reverse-engineering dinosaurs from bird DNA within the decade.
The Tyrell Corporation
In director Ridley Scott’s 1982 future-noir “Blade Runner,” the mysterious Tyrell Corporation is headquartered in a giant pyramidlike structure in future Los Angeles. Its high priest, the geneticist Eldon Tyrell, builds replicants—lifelike androids designed for work in off-world colonies. The Tyrell Corporation trades in the ultimate deception—the manufacture of machines that are virtually indistinguishable from real people. The company motto: “More human than human.”
The vision of a future dystopia in “Blade Runner” is squarely in the tradition of 1980s cyberpunk science fiction, in which titanic megacorporations are more powerful than nations. The Tyrell Corporation is interested in literally dehumanizing the workplace, and we may be closer to that reality than is entirely comfortable. In September, the Japanese multinational conglomerate Hitachi announced the promotion of the world’s first artificial intelligence into middle management. Hitachi’s AI isn’t simply another automated software or robotic system—it’s true artificial intelligence that oversees warehouse management and issues employee work orders in real time. Meet the new boss.
In the popular post-apocalypse videogame series Fallout, the remnants of human society survive global thermonuclear war by sheltering in survival bunkers built by a corporation known as Vault-Tec. As the storyline of the game develops, players learn that Vault-Tec was actually a ginormous military contractor before the war, involved in advanced technologies ranging from bioweapons to artificial intelligence to genetic engineering. What’s more, several Vault-Tec shelters were actually built to conduct deadly experiments on human subjects and communities.
The designers of Fallout have a lot of fun playing with retro-future sci-fi tropes from the Cold War era. Vault-Tec installations look like derelict Art Deco ruins, and flashback sequences depict a corporate culture of mad scientists and psychotic bureaucrats. Here’s some unsettling news: Earlier this year, the U.S. government awarded a $700 million contract to defense contractor Raytheon to reopen the Cold War-era Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. Do they know something we don’t?
The Soylent Corporation
Paranoia about shady corporations and government collusion goes way back. In the 1973 sci-fi classic “Soylent Green,” overpopulation and environmental pollution has left much of the U.S. citizenry dependent on processed food rations. The benevolent Soylent Corporation, working with federal authorities, helpfully provides wafers of a protein-rich food substitute, purportedly made from ocean plankton.
All, however, is not as it seems. The film’s most famous quote (“Soylent Green is people!”) tells the rest of the story. The movie unspools as a kind of wigged-out crime procedural, with the Soylent Corporation as one of Hollywood’s most distasteful corporate villains.
Here comes the upshot: Since May of last year, the California-based company Rosa Labs has been selling its Soylent brand meal-replacement drinks to customers in the United States and Canada. Classified as a food by the FDA, rather than a supplement, Soylent’s recipe is also top-secret, but Rosa Labs assures us it’s made without any meat, dairy or gluten.
Maybe this year’s single biggest TV breakout hit, “Mr. Robot” from the USA Network reboots the villainous corporation template with sly, postmodern intrigue. The mysterious E Corp—aka Evil Corp—is introduced as one of the world’s biggest and most powerful corporations, a multinational conglomerate responsible for a massive ecological disaster. Our hero, Elliot, joins a team of hacktivists dedicated to opposing the corporate juggernaut.
The creators of “Mr. Robot” are clearly learned in the history of Hollywood corporate villainy. The series subtly references several fictional companies already mentioned in this list, and—not coincidentally—even features a main character named “Tyrell.” But the show is also interested in deconstructing the traditional corporate villain template. Lines are blurry in “Mr. Robot,” and E Corp doesn’t trade in old-school, twirling-mustache villainy. The company is frightening not because it’s so sinister, but because it’s so familiar.
Science fiction has given us plenty of other corporate villains over the years: Omni Consumer Products, Blue Sun, Veidt Industries, Buy n Large. The next time corporate intrigues descend on your place of work, try to keep this list in mind. At least your company isn’t planning to feed you to aliens in the name of bioweapons research ... so far as you know.