In the legal sense, VISA is a non-stock, for-profit, membership corporation. In another sense, it is an inside-out holding company in that it does not hold but is held by its functioning parts. The 23,000 financial institutions that create its products are, at one and the same time, its owners, its members, its customers, its subjects and its superiors. It exists as an integral part of the most highly regulated of industries, yet is not subject to any regulatory, authority in the world.
It is a chaord, the totality of which, excluding thousands of affiliated entities, would, if converted to a stock company, have a market value exceeding $150 billion. Yet, it cannot be bought, traded, raided, or sold, since ownership is held in the form of perpetual, non-transferable, membership rights. However, that portion of the business created by each member is owned solely by them, is reflected in their stock prices, and can be sold to any entity eligible for membership — a very broad, active market.
VISA espoused no political, economic, social, or legal theory, thus transcending language, custom, politics, and culture to successfully connect institutions and peoples of every persuasion. It has gone through a number of wars and revolutions, the belligerents continuing to share common ownership and never ceasing reciprocal acceptance of cards, even though they were killing one another.
It is a chaord which, in less than five years, transformed a troubled product with a minority market share into a dominant market share and the single most profitable consumer service in the industry, while at the same time reducing by more than 50 percent the cost of unsecured credit to individuals and the merchant cost of handling payment instruments. It has had no less than 20 percent and as much as 50 percent compound annual growth for a quarter century, through the best and the worst of times.
It has multiple boards of directors within a single legal entity, none of which can be considered superior or inferior, as each has irrevocable authority and autonomy over geographic or functional areas.
Its products are the most universally used and recognized in the world, yet the organization is so transparent that its ultimate customers, most if its affiliates, and some of its members do not know how it exists or functions. At the same time, the core of the enterprise has no knowledge of or authority over a vast number of the constituent parts. No part knows the whole, the whole does not know all the parts and none has any need to. The entirety, like all chaords — including those you call body, brain, and biosphere — is largely self-regulating.
A staff of approximately three thousand people scattered in twenty-one offices in thirteen countries on four continents coordinates this two-thirds of a trillion dollar business, providing product and systems development, global advertising, and around-the-clock operation of two global electronic communication systems with thousands of data centers communicating through nine million miles of fiber-optic cable. Those systems clear a greater number of electronic financial transactions in a week than the Federal Reserve wire system does in a year. Their capacity is 1, I 00 transactions per second at a cost of less than a penny each.
Its employees received mediocre salaries by commercial standards, and could never be compensated with equity or acquire wealth for their services. Yet those people selected the VISA name, completed the largest trademark conversion in commercial history in a third the time anticipated, and built the prototype of the present communications system in ninety days for less than $25,000. Time and time and time again they demonstrated a simple truth we have somehow lost sight of in Newtonian, mechanistic organizations:
Given the right circumstances, from no more than dreams, determination, and the liberty to try, quite ordinary people consistently do extraordinary things.
Enough of philosophy and VISA history. What about the future? Ten years ago, I severed my connection with VISA for a life of anonymity and isolation, thinking to grow woolly with books, nature, and uninterrupted thought. In 1993 1 stumbled across the book Complexity, by Waldrup. The concepts in the book were not surprising; they seemed like old, familiar friends. What was surprising was that they were now beginning to emerge in the scientific world. Curiosity compelled me to a few dozen more books, visits to the Santa Fe, Foresight, and Bionomics Institutes, and to the Joyce Foundation in Chicago.