I first came across the group of artists and designers called Futurefarmers at a conference at the University of Montreal in 2001. They were there to talk about the development of one of their projects called They Rule. A blend of internet software wizardry and journalistic enquiry that allowed users to explore who sat on the board of directors of the US’s leading 100 companies and to take a “glimpse of some of the relationships of the US ruling class”.
The They Rule website provides an interface for users to select companies across the spectrum of American industries, from entertainment to food, farming to oil; see who sits on the board of governors and from there from there find out all about them by accessing information already existing in the public realm, for example who they donated their money to.
Rather than just being a glorified search engine this interface encourages you to make connections between corporate organisations and the network of individuals behind them. It’s a question of joining the dots and in the process revealing some of the vested interests, values and inter-relationships. Click on the board to reveal the board members and if one of the members is larger than the others then they will sit on more than one corporate board. If they are huge, they are involved with several companies. Users undertake their own lines of enquiry and can save these ‘maps’ for others to view. The beauty of the site is the way in which they have blended a simple and enjoyable interface with a commitment to enquiry.
Ten years on and They Rule is still going strong; 100 companies have recently been replaced by 1000, and the research now links into both Wikipedia and LittleSis, an American database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government. In this age of surveillance it is good to know that there’s a way to keep an eye on some of the most powerful institutions and individuals on the planet and in such an engaging and playful way.