Dee Hock, Founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA on capitalism and spirituality.
Interview by Jon Raymond
Everyone knows what VISA is, right? It’s a credit card company, with a logo featuring blue and orange stripes, and sometimes there’s a hologram of a white dove involved. It makes commercials with people buying things in tropical locales and its motto is “everywhere you want to be” (or is that the other one?). But what is VISA, really? Who owns it? Where is it located? How is it organized? These are questions that not many people can answer, even though they carry the card around in their pocket and buy things with it all the time.
VISA, it turns out, came to being in the late 1960s, out of the tumult of the early credit card industry, and went on to grow as no financial institution had ever grown before, a thousand fold in less than twenty five years. It now links more than a billion consumers in an enterprise with an annual sales volume of $1.8 trillion, the largest consumer purchasing block in the history of the world.
The founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA is a man named Dee Hock and he is not the kind of guy you might think he would be. He is not a hard- driving bondtrader in tassle-loafers, nor a steely- eyed industrialist with broad shoulders. Rather, he is something of a self-styled Thoreau, with a dash of the Siddhartha, living quietly in Olympia, Washington, where he spends his time reading philosophy and literature and constructing thought-experiments about the nature of organizational management. He is a CEO-guru, in the mold of guys like Larry Ellison, Mike Ovitz, and Steve Jobs, blending capitalism and spirituality in a far-ranging vision of sanctified markets and institutionalized social change.
In fact, Hock invented the mold. Back in the 60s, while the hippies of Haight-Ashbury were tripping out over the galaxies embedded in their own toenails, across the San Francisco bay in Salinas, Hock and a coterie of young bankers were doing much the same, asking themselves mind-expanding questions about the organizing principles of the universe and pondering the cosmic interconnectedness of all things. What is the purpose of being? What is the nature of a tree? The answers they came up with were a synchretic stew of gnostic Christianity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, Zen Buddhism, and Native American eco-epistemology, aimed at replacing the command and control model of industrial Fordism with the fractal, self-organizing principles of what has since come to be known as the New Economy. You cannot understand Silicon Valley without understanding the quasi-spiritual entrepreneurism that Hock pioneered. You can’t understand Chiat-Day, or Star-bucks, or Apple computers, or Ben and Jerry’s or Kinko’s. It is a model that exchanges the very metaphors of market capitalism for the nearly psychedelic human enhancement of the New Age.
In 1984, Hock left VISA to do some gardening and think about the lessons he had learned in the building of VISA. He bought a piece of land in Northern California, and read a lot of books, and six years ago founded the Chaordic Commons of Terra Civitas, a nonprofit group devoted to fomenting organizational experiments in a host of fields, from religion to marine systems to breast feeding to Geo data mapping. To Dee Hock, it turns out, the triumph of VISA was only the beginning, now that the world is finally exiting four hundred years of Cartesian machine-thinking.
In Plazm #27, editor Jon Raymond chatted with Dee Hock from his home in Olympia. What he says is not what you might expect. This is not the typical market boosterism of someone normally associated with arch-capitalist endeavor. It makes you wonder: if the founder of VISA talks like this, what is capitalism even about anymore?