(8 November 1999)
Scientists have discovered the remains of what may have been the largest business corporation of the early 21st-century.
All that has been found so far is a small electronic memo from head office to all branches, but businessologists have been able to extrapolate the real size of the megacorp from that, and they now reckon that it was the largest ever known.
"We're going back to AD2010 or 2020," says Dr Ephraim Hustler, "a time which we know to have represented the zenith of the monster business corporations. Nowadays, of course, we know all about the Third Law of Business, which states that survival probability is in inverse ratio to growth rate, but they didn't know that then.
"Of course, we're going back a good few centuries, and it's hard to get inside the mind of a 20th-century person, but it seems that they were fatally capable of believing two opposite things at the same time."
Dr Hustler pauses, and shuffles some of the 20th-century antiques on his desk. A mobile phone. A 2-D TV set. A piece of "paper". "For a start," says Dr Hustler, business research Fellow of North Bournemouth Polytechnic, "people knew that the second millennium ended at the end of 2000, but they all celebrated a year early. They all heralded the arrival of the internet, but forgot that it was just an information exchange process, not a physical enabler.
"They knew that size led to cumbersome inefficiency – that's how the dinosaurs died out – but still insisted on creating bigger and bigger companies and bigger and bigger federal states, and seeing globalisation as the way forward. A few voices were raised in protest, saying that it all contained the seeds of its own destruction, but they were ignored. The 21st century was a time when size was all, when best-selling was thought to mean best..."
Dr Hustler pauses again and picks up another 20th-century relic. It was called a "stapler". Nobody today knows what it was used for. Something to do with "paper", perhaps?
"The interesting thing is that these monster corporations managed to get big even without any clear function. Several seem to have specialised in making running-shoes, although people took less and less exercise. Two huge corporations, called Pepsi and Coke, did nothing but sell fizzy brown flavoured water. Not only had the two products little obvious attraction, they were almost identical, yet these giants spent millions battling to establish their own tedious brand. To us, they were clearly doomed. At the time, it must have seemed as if they would live for ever."
Dr Hustler picks up a small disc with string wrapped round the middle, which he often likes to play with. It is called a "Yo-Yo". Nothing else is known about it, but its sheer lack of function suggests some sort of religious significance.
"Anyway, we have now discovered that Coke and Pepsi were not the biggest conglomerates to walk the Earth. If our reconstruction is accurate, a far larger one seems to have flourished just after 2000. As far as we can tell, it was a dispenser of entertainment and news (though they made little distinction between the two in those days) formed by a merger of half a dozen giants. One was called the BBC, one was called Sky, one News International. Anyway, it was huge.
"Those who believed size was progress must have thought it represented the future. They thought the same about the ship called Titanic, a plane called the Brabazon, and about nuclear weapons..."
Dr Hustler smiles.
"Did you know that my place of study, North Bournemouth Polytechnic, was once part of a huge educational complex called the South Coast University, which stretched from here to Brighton? Absolute madness. All part of the mania for gigantism, globalisation, conglomeration and all the other diseases that nearly killed us in the 21st-century, before we managed to start thinking straight. Just in time."
Dr Hustler sighs, and picks up a 20th-century wooden carving. It is in the shape of a cross and has a man on it. He is clad only in what seems to be a bath towel. It was clearly once very significant. Our scientists still have not cracked its meaning, but think it may have been just a good luck charm from a superstitious and ignorant age.