Jensen, J.L. (2020), "Digital Feudalism", The Medieval Internet: Power, Politics and Participation in the Digital Age, Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 95-109. https://doi.org/10.1108/978-1-83909-412-520201008Download as .RIS
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2020 Jakob Linaa Jensen
In this chapter, I turn to the economic and social logics that converge in what is often called the ‘platform economy’. I will argue for a pertinent analogy between the social relations, dependency and power implicated in the platform economy and the way feudal ties bound together the medieval economic and political system. My larger claim is that the immediate physical coercion that ultimately helped define the feudal order has been softened in the neo-feudal digital order, where subservience is based on logics of participation and persuasion.
The medieval economy was largely based on feudalism, a total social fact defined and described by Max Bloch (1961). The picture goes something like this: central actors were kings and princes, feudal lords and peasants, the latter often bound to the land, village and role by a set of usages and traditions that made them serfs. Theoretically, the hierarchy was clear. In the secular domain, the top was occupied by the monarch or noble, whose credential for this position was wholly a matter of inheritance from a family. Down from the ruler were the less elevated nobles, whose credentials, too, were wholly a matter of inheritance. Theory here often deviated from practice: often, nobles that were theoretically the vassals of the rule were, practically, richer and more powerful. Such was the case, for instance, in France, where the conflict between the Duchy of Burgundy and the French royal house led to long internecine wars throughout the fifteenth century. The feudal lords inherited certain privileges that could include exploitation of waste properties, the right to tax peasants and, sometimes, position at the court. Their houses often employed vast numbers of retainers: John of Gaunt, an influential noble in late fourteenth-century England, for instance, had 200 retainers in his house, not including his servants. By comparison, his King, Edward III, had about 368 (Emery, 1996). As vassals, the nobles had obligations to raise armies for the king’s campaigns, whatever for regular war on certain enemies or a crusade to the holy land, as happened several times in the Middle Ages.
The feudal lords, on the other hand, exploited the peasants, often through a formalised system of serfdom, in which the peasants’ right to use their land as they decided, or to move from their land, or to rent it or sell it, was circumscribed by the basic ownership of the land by the Lord, who in turn was forbidden to ‘mistreat’ the serf. Serfdom was different from direct chattel slavery, which allowed the peasant to be taken off the land, directed to labour as the owner wished, etc. The slave system was abandoned in the early Middle Ages. Most peasants were at the mercy of the household of their feudal lords. He could tax them heavily, he could punish them if failing to deliver goods and money, and, in some cases, he could get away with raping them, often without any consequences, as it happens for the poor hero in Ildefonso Falcones bestseller ‘Cathedral by the sea’. Admittedly, the droit de seigneur, in the latter case, was more of a myth than a legal fact.
In general, the peasants (rusticus) were despised by the more powerful and subject to a host of denigrating stories about their stupidity, or their cunning, or dishonesty, etc. The very term ‘clown’ derives from a term for those who colonised and cultivated lands outside the city, hence Shakespeare’s use of the term to mean a rustic person, they were often considered backwards and stupid and ridiculed by the literate class, especially after the Black Death gave peasants advantages in terms of compensation and rents. On the other hand, peasants often grouped together to rebel. Significant rebellions included the revolt under Amund Sigurdsson in Norway against Eric III in 1436–1438, The Wat Tyler rebellion in England in 1381 and the French Jacquerie of 1358. There were innumerable lesser riots and insurgencies as well. For a medieval peasant, life was often nasty, brutish and short, but, as the revolts showed, peasants had a strong sense of their often unwritten customary rights. When the nobility or monarchy overreached, either by taxation or by abrogating a traditional right, the peasants often struck back.
The medieval age marked to a large extent an economic base for government different from the past and the aftermath. As taxation systems, fundamental for the government of the Roman empire broke down, medieval economy was based on land ownership and to a large extent on the exploitation of peasants through lord–vassal relationships. Wars, frequent in Medieval times, were organised through the feudal lords and their obligation to raise armies for kings and barons. Tax paid armies was largely unknown, contrary to later times. Anthropologist George Foster (1965) theorised that medieval societies had a zero-sum view of goods – one person having a good meant, essentially, that another person didn’t have it. On a larger scale, this promotes the historical view that any period of plenty will be balanced out by a period of loss – which the medieval figured as the wheel of Fortuna. Thus, for medieval societies, there simply wasn’t a binding idea of ‘growth’ as a social goal, as there is in capitalist modernity.
Although the entire period was rife with uncertainties, it was also productive of solutions: the whole of the feudal system was conceived as a form of protection for the populace, which in turn granted its allegiance. The system of dependencies then created strong bonds, in some cases slave-like conditions but also mutual benefits. The kings and nobility depended upon each other. So did nobility and the peasants. When feudalism worked well and fair, peasants and serfs had protection and stable conditions but as we have seen, life was often harsh at the mercy of the feudal lords.
The Rise and Fall of the Common
As described in Chapter 3, the common was a widespread geographical feature of medieval landscapes. Situated as ‘no mans-lands’ between the towns and villages, they were basically free to use as they were outside the domains of the towns, the lords and the churches. In a sense, they were like the vast landscapes of America and Australia in the nineteenth century, still awaiting colonisation and ownership. They were places from where resources were extracted by common right and usage. Here peasants could graze the animals, gather wood for fires, pick berries and herbs, or use whatever they could find and use as long as their extractions did not damage the community. The common was often the resort of the poor and marginalised; for travelling beggars and others outside the village’s close-knit control.
A typical example of commons were forests, large areas separating towns and villages, often lawless areas as we see in the traditional story of Robin Hood. Here, Sherwood Forest is a scene of the struggle between the common right and encroachment by the nobles. Robin Hood is a ‘yeoman of the forests’ – representing the community rights of freeholders, who do not recognise the King’s exclusive right to forest resources, or the claims of his representatives. But as royal and aristocratic power, as well as church power, expanded, the commons were diminished and, in many areas, the common rights to lands were cut off altogether. As land was fundamental for medieval economy, the colonisation of the commons took place throughout the Middle Ages and was almost finished by the end of the period.
The decline and disappearance of the commons during the Middle Ages and forward is often supplemented by another story, the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968). Here the common space or the common good disappears because too many people exploit it. The sum of apparently rational (but selfish) individual actions leads to an irrational public outcome, the loss of something shared and valuable. The tragedy of the commons has also been used as a general notion on human egoism, that free stuff will always be abused and exploited due to individual greed. Both these stories of the fall of the commons are related to the development of the Internet from the early years till now.
The Internet as a New Common
In the early years, the tech-utopians touted the structure of the unidirectional, few-to-many media platforms would dissolve, and many-to-many democracy would arise. The rise of the Internet was compared to the age of colonisation (starting with the ‘discovery’ of America at the end of the Middle Ages) where once again vast amounts of ‘free’ land (which just happened to be lived on by millions of indigenous peoples) was colonised, exploited and in some cases left bare, in other cases developed into rich pastures, as in the case of North America and Australia. However, even when colonisation was successful in a narrow economic perspective of the colonisers, the indigenous populations died by the millions. In the comparison, this discovery would be better, since there were no indigenous people in virtual space. There was simply an enormous virtual landscape to be fertilised and exploited.
There was a strong libertarian impulse in these early notions about the Internet, which reflected the technology culture of the West Coast, and in particular, California, with its air of being the last frontier in the colonisation of America and traditionally a place where liberty is valued and cherished. Early Internet pioneers shared a belief that the Internet, although a product of Pentagon and the American military, ought to be free, owned by the people (Dyson, 1996). The former Grateful Dead-singer John Perry Barlow (1996) famously made his ‘Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’, where he declared that the Internet had its own logics, beyond the domains of nation states and corporations, where ultimate freedom would finally be won. The libertarian movement got a stronghold in Electronic Frontier Foundation, opposing all attempts of censorship and control of the Internet. In this culture we also find the offspring of the hacker culture of which 4Chan, Anonymous and WikiLeaks today are notable phenomena.
Many of the early researchers or programmers behind the Internet were also inspired by the hippie movement. There was a widespread belief in sharing and a willingness to give away codes, creations and information, achieving only recognition rather than money. Similar ideas are behind the ‘creative commons’ movement, redefining issues of copyright and ownership (Lessig, 2002). According to Zittrain (2008, p. 59) the generative nature of the personal computer and adjacent software sparked an extraordinary development of new products and ideas. When Tim Berners-Lee made the Internet useful for a general public in the early 1990s by developing the WWW protocol he faced a choice. Rather than making it into a personal money machine or confining its use to the corridors of CERN, he made it freely available to everybody. Many programmes, games and other software followed similar patterns and often the programming code was available, allowing everybody to iterate and develop it.
In his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar on the culture of open source software like Linux, Eric Raymond (1999) highlights the difference between top-down companies based on hierarchies, inert and slow transformation (cathedrals) with the open source culture (the bazaar). The latter originates from the hacker culture and is based on no pay, sharing and cooperation. Excellence is not rewarded by money but by mentioning and recognition in the community and beyond. The open source culture, fundamental from the early years of the Internet, has given us an abundance of extensions, possibilities and add-ons, making the Internet a much more dynamic and useful place than it would have been if everything was defined by the ‘cathedrals’. Bottom-up is the key to innovation, creativity and development. The age of web 2.0, of user-generated content is a natural extension of the hacker culture and the open source movement, driven by user interaction and a code that promoted the recognition of creativity over the segregated wealth of intellectual property rights. Creativity was not supposed to be in the hands of the individual, but rather was to be echoed, copied, adapted and in general added to by the community as a whole. This era had its moment. But in the end, the cathedrals strike back. They intervened in the bazaar, tapping and commercialising creativity and putting definite limits on what could be done, shared or imitated with their products. In the end, they might either bulldoze the bazaar or leave it deserted.
The once ‘free’ Internet, much like the new ‘worlds’ opened up by European settlers, became a top down, colonised thing. And its consequent development saw huge power plays much like those of medieval feudal lords and the Church, with the object of acquiring power in all domains. Modern tech giants arose in the crucial early years of the twenty-first century – Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. – and colonised the Internet, driving out competitors. Early internet service providers like America Online imposed interfaces on their users, prioritising own curated content and sometimes even excluding access to services from competing companies. Today, the mechanisms are often much less obvious and observable. Apple has their system of tethered appliances, only allowing for apps, music and films curated by Apple. Facebook, starting as a social network for college students, has turned into a meta-medium for all kinds of news, entertainment and information. Amazon, from the beginning a bookshop is competing to be THE global supplier of information and entertainment. And ever-present Google wants to be THE gateway for all information in the world. They colonise on each other’s territory. Facebook wants to be like Google and Google has a burning desire to copy Facebook’s social success. The dominant tech companies act like new feudal lords. They want control and dependent subjects, like the medieval feudal lords wanted obedient and hard-working serfs and peasants. The difference is that the new neo-feudal order offers carrots to the consumer, and not sticks (although any perceived use of intellectual property from these giants swiftly brings about a lawsuit).
Grimmelmann (2009) was probably the first to argue that digital services had resemblances to feudal society. In a study of Second Life, the once popular virtual community, he claimed that the way the founder, Linden, gave away or sold virtual ‘land plots’ in Second Life had strong similarities to medieval procedures by which English feudal lords gave away land to secure loyal vassals and tenants. In these terms, the price for joining Second Life is an almost literal feudal relationship of dependency to the founders, the Linden family. Further, Second Life even sports a parallel to feudalism’s hierarchical chains of subinfeudation (Grimmelmann, 2009, p. 128), where the lord could distribute land to subordinates who could give it further away, creating further chains of mutual dependency.
Grimmelmann’s fascinating study addressed only Second Life. I claim that the feudalisation of the Internet, what I will refer to as digital feudalism, is a much more pervasive phenomenon. It is related to what is often called ‘the platform economy’.
The Platform Economy as a New Feudalism
In popular imagination, the Internet is still very much seen as the WWW. When the WWW celebrated its 25th anniversary, media portrayed it as the anniversary of the Internet (https://www.dw.com/en/hyperlink-when-tim-berners-lee-invented-the-world-wide-web-not-the-internet/a-19448729). The truth is that there was an Internet before the WWW with services and platforms like Gopher, Fidonet and IRC. WWW is not the Internet but a way of organising information on it, based on hyperlinks and the http protocol, which was immediately exploited and made popular and accessible through graphical browsers like Netscape, Explorer and Google Chrome.
Today’s Internet is much more than just the WWW, not at least due to increasing mobile use and the adherent ‘app’ explosion that I will discuss later in this chapter. It is also characterised by convergence, as separate Internet technologies like e-mail, chat, ftp protocols for file exchange, WWW and different formats like photo, video and text are melting together in seamless interfaces. The browsers are getting more advanced, using cookies for ‘convenient and easy navigation’, easing life for users but at the cost of privacy. Navigating the Internet of today is easier and aesthetically much more pleasant than it was in the 1990s, but we pay for this speed, convenience and aesthetic pleasure by giving up our privacy and falling into routines of dependence, as I will discuss later.
A central tendency of today’s Internet is the dominance of big tech companies, what Foer (2017) calls the big five: Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon. They come from each their point of departure: Apple produced computers, operating systems and software, Microsoft operating systems and software based in IBM compatible personal computers (and later, like Apple expanding to tablets and mobile phones). Facebook started as on online network for college student and has today expanded into a ‘meta medium’ (Linaa Jensen & Tække, 2013), struggling for control of information, news and communication. Google was born as the world’s smartest search engine but today strives for archiving (and controlling) all information in the world, with the business expanding to hardware production, self-driving cars, etc. Finally, Amazon, originating as an online market for books is today also a major content provider, crossing over competing with the other platforms on their own domains.
The dominance of the ‘big five’ and other large tech companies is often referred to as ‘the platform economy’. Such a concept implies an economic perspective, focussing on how corporations commoditise information on the Internet, and track and store user data and user behaviour. Moore and Mauro (2018) claim that just as capitalism historically has been dependent upon availability of cheap natural resources, today it is increasingly dependent on data on which new business models are based. van Dijck (2013) argues that the users are the product as their data, connections and interactions are monetarised. From a political economy perspective, sociality and connectivity are resources that fuel the development of new business models (Bucher, 2018, p. 6).
Even while the consensus is that data and users are central to the platform economy business model, unpacking what this all means – and in particular, what a ‘platform’ is – remains controversial. I have already argued that platforms create an Internet experience that is different in kind from the WWW, as the former operates simply as an address system while the later creates a space that channels information into certain interfaces or user experiences, which is what Anne Helmond (2015) means by her phrase ‘the platformization of the Web’. For Helmond, a platform is a phenomenon based on APIs, the application programming interfaces that make the technology work. Sometimes these APIs are open for development by other coders, sometimes they are closed to public scrutiny, as in the case of Facebook. Besides this technical definition, Gillespie (2014) defines a platform as a tool of content moderation. Here, the message, rather than the technology is determining the culture of the users.
In fact, though, the technological frames and the content they mediate are intrinsically linked. In arguing how the Internet has been increasingly platformised, app-ified, commodified and, ultimately, controlled and regulated, I briefly describe four areas where this development has taken place since the 1990s: the control of networks and distribution, the power of interfaces, the app-ification related to the explosion of mobile commodities and the control of the content. I address the development of these factors, each in turn, before I discuss the mechanisms by which the new, digital feudalism works.
Control of Networks and Distribution
A central feature of the economy in the information society is the primacy of the control of distribution (of information and knowledge) rather than of the production of goods and services that drove the growth of the industrial society of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism. There is nothing new about seeing the control and distribution of information and knowledge as the gateway to power. As I have pointed out, the Church was able to function with an almost irresistible power because it largely controlled the circulation of information and even the materials that represented it, since it was the letters and manuscripts, all copied by hand, that constituted the stock of written knowledge at the time. The Church was intertwined with monarchical and noble bureaucracies in its functioning – the latter being particularly crucial in making and maintaining the network of roads and messengers. In this system, information was difficult and expensive to reproduce, especially given the lack of any real market for written texts in a largely illiterate society. Along with the printing press, it was the introduction of paper into Europe, first in Spain in the thirteenth century, and then over the next 100 years throughout Europe, that gave writing a tough, cheap and less cumbersome support. It was the discovery that paper and writing was economically advantageous by the merchants that gave the impetus to spread literacy to the working force in the cities. Systematic effects arose from finding more efficient media – which is also parallel to developments of the modern Internet. The access to and knowledge about how to use computers and the Internet have increased rapidly over the years, what is commonly referred to as digital literacy. The free, unregulated structure of the Internet combined with the low usage cost (at least compared to traditional telecommunication) has driven that acceleration. Meanwhile, we have also seen an increased struggle to control the networks. Corporations want loyal customers and the absence of state regulation in order to maximise profits on user subscriptions. The rise of data centres, big complexes hosting servers and softwares and where tech companies’ data are stored and traffic takes place, is an independent problem. Apart from the energy consumption issues (it takes a lot of power to cool down servers) data centres also represent a concentration of data and thereby of money and power, which is based on the successful control and regulation of data. Such data centres are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, theft and other threats. And one has to remember, that in the end, most of what is inside is data produced and communicated through private users. Centralisation and control of such a commodity might represent a democratic problem.
Governments, democratic or not, try to control information, in some cases by direct censorship (as in China), in other cases through increased control with and responsibility for the Internet providers: for instance, Germany has recently passed laws obliging Internet providers to remove hate speech (defined very loosely and thus problematically) within 24 hours to avoid heavy fines.
Networks and infrastructures are negotiated and controlled globally through yearly conferences within the regime of ICANN among other organisations where the protocols and rules governing the Internet are discussed and laid out. There has been an increasing pressure from China and a number of countries in the Middle East on the United States to give up its exclusive control of the backbone of the Internet. The counter argument runs that the United States has not evidently abused its protocol power, while some argue that giving more control to China and despotic regimes, for instance, in the Middle East, will damage the free flow of information and create a medieval system of censorship. The ongoing struggle for having final say over the protocols as well as the struggle between corporate power and government regulation will prove to be fundamental for the future of the Internet (Zittrain, 2008), either accelerating its transformation from a relatively free commons to a commodified and government controlled space, or pushing back against it in tandem with the growth of social forces at large turning towards regulating corporations and resisting state encroachment on individual rights.
For long time, the central struggle among the computer literati pitted Apple against Microsoft. Where Apple produced computers as well as software, Microsoft produced software based on the architecture of IBM compatible personal computers. Users’ choice of which terminal to use, Apple or PC took on an almost religious aura as the discussions and teasing among the different user groups was often fierce. The battle expanded when the Internet got a grip on the public. In the mid-nineties, ‘browser wars’ between Netscape (the first widely used browser), Apple’s ‘Safari’ and Microsoft’s ‘Explorer’ raged. The Explorer had the advantage of Microsoft’s advanced position in the consumer market, until the American courts decided that Microsoft’s trick of building their browser into the Windows operating system was a violation of competition laws. This made way for other browser options – notably Google.
Today, the struggle has expanded into the domain of content, with Apple carving out a distinct silo of products and services and Microsoft seeking to compete with its own, closed domains of information and services. Apple made a giant step towards dominance with the launch of the iPhone in 2008, combining the familiar mobile phone with a designed look and hundreds of special apps. (Microsoft tried to follow with its own phone combination, but the short-lived marriage with giant mobile phone producer Nokia gained no traction against its rivals). Apple, on the other hand, with their universe of computers, tablets and phones has created a universe of tethered appliances where Apple products only run with Apple software and apps and content approved by Apple. Hereby, they create a system of dependency for the users, not unlike the relation between lords and peasants in medieval society. The users have almost no choice as once in, the cost of leaving is considerable: it is all the information that their iPhone provide. And ultimately, Apple is able to control what type of information is available to the users.
In this story, the players changed somewhat once Microsoft realised its limitations in the phone market. From its origin as a search engine Google has eagerly sought out niches into which it can expand from its core business. While Apple dominated the mobile phone market, Google saw a place for cheaper phones, and in the process imposed its own operating system, Android, partnering up with such important brands as Samsung. With the Android OS and the Google Play shop (modelled on Apple), the company pulled users into a complete Google universe with Google apps for almost everything from weather reports to text editing. Apple and Google are two variants of siloisation, making ‘walled cities’ on their users from which it is difficult to escape, especially given the willingness of these giant companies to buy smaller ones and the unwillingness of anti-trust regulatory agencies to break them up. Thus, in one stroke they commodify an information flow they do not produce and impose overt and sometimes hidden bonds of dependency, information wise and financially. In short, they behave in feudal-like manners.
A central reason behind the platformisation is the fact that Internet is now a mobile device resource. The problem with mobile devices was their smaller screens, which required some engineering before they could be made compatible with the Web to the small screen. The most successful solution became the app (short for application), small pieces of software designed to bridge the mobile phone and the Web. After this initial problem in software engineering was resolved, tech companies realised that apps could also be designed, for all types of purposes, for tablets and computers as well. Some apps are browsers or similar generic access points to the Web, but most are dedicated to a certain task, like social networking, e-mails, providing weather information, playing backgammon or delivering news from a certain medium. In a connected landscape where apps are used by billions of PC, laptop, tablet and phone users, it soon became evident that the single app was a wonderfully effective way to direct the users’ attention to a very limited slice of the Internet, ideally keeping him or her there as long as possible. This is clearly illustrated, for instance, by ubiquitous gaming apps like Farmville, Angry Birds and Fortnite, creating whole micro-cosmos of social relationships and economies. Fortnite is the most reason success. It is free, it attracts a very young audience, and after they get used to playing it and want more, it charges the parents – in fact, children can’t play it past a certain level without spending money, even though those levels are mixed up with ‘skill’ at playing the game. Very cleverly, skill turns into a commodity you buy.
Zittrain (2008, pp. 104–107) calls this tendency appliancisation, but given the spread of the word ‘appliance’ and the fact that ‘app’ very specifically connotes computing related appliances, I will refer to it as ‘app-ification’. Seeing the world through apps give a limited glimpse of the totality of the Internet, compared to, for instance, web browsing. Some apps are advanced while others are quite simple, almost like a thermostat designed to measure changes in certain specified conditions. The world of apps is also a world of siloes and walled supply chains, limiting the user experience to certain limited views. App-ification is big business, with different approaches: typically, the Apple App store allows only Apple certified apps to be downloaded, in keeping with the Apple philosophy of capturing their users entire consumer space, whereas the Google Play store, in keeping with Google’s idea of creaming off a bit from any commodity that deals with it, chose a more open approach.
Apps are also characterised by being closed circuits. There are limited outlinks, for instance, to websites built through certain curated apps and designed by the app builders to keep users within the environment. That is one reason why so many tech companies, travel companies, newspapers, organisations and institutions develop apps. In a sense, they are forced to – it is a sort of arms race in which not having an app that at least is compatible with other apps will leave the platform out in the cold. It is a fixed way of getting the users’ attention in the plenitude of information available online.
The Control of Content
In 2002, I arrived in Minnesota as a young visiting researcher. Amazed by the choice of cheap laptops I bought a new one, fitted with DVD drive that was quite unique at that time. I got many perks with the purchase, including a three months of Internet subscription powered by America Online (AOL). However, the gift came at a price. The device was fitted with AOL’s own web browser, strongly favouring certain sites and services, owned by or affiliated with AOL. The free Internet had already been colonised. When the eager salesman called me to persuade me to renew the subscription, he got the lecture of his life about the death of the Internet and similar stuff. Well, I was young and over-eager, but this, in retrospect, was my first encounter with online feudalism.
Internet providers saw at an early stage that Internet access was a business that would achieve a critical mass once everybody was connected. As saturation neared, as the networks and connections were established, the battle of content, for attention as well as the desire silently directed by algorithms, began for real. Today consumers face a variety of choices of cable TV packages, streaming services, music archives, online books and all kinds of other content. The services and the content merge. Today, Amazon does much more than just selling books online: it produces series, it helps self-publish books, it is a major player in all commodity retail. Apple and Microsoft have also moved out of their core business concerns as they seek to leverage their operating systems and devices into penetrating the niches these things have opened up. With these two giants, you have to pay up front. Facebook and Google have garnered an immense profit from another business strategy by giving away their services for free while transforming their users into marketing tools, delivering the data that is the lifeblood for the companies. That is one major difference between the native content providers and social network services. There’s no free lunch in the world of the Internet, in as much as even free content comes as the result of an exchange – that is, consumers give up a certain amount of information about themselves, which has the effect of channelling their economic behaviour.
Corporations are always seeking to establish long-term obligations. For cable TV packages, you have to sign up for a certain time span. Providers of streaming services such as HBO and Netflix provide ‘attractive’ prices the longer you sign up for. So do music services like Spotify, an interesting example of the digital content economy. In the 1990s there was an abundance of pirated and illegal services for downloading music and films like Napster, Gnutella and BitTorrent. The entertainment industry was desperate and hired an army of lawyers to stop the piracy. Police made arrests and heavy fines as well as imprisonment of the offenders took place. Still, piracy did not stop. ICT entrepreneurs suggested solutions for online, paid music and film sharing. The industry resisted fiercely and called it ‘impossible’, until it became possible as Spotify became the world’s dominant service for paid music and HBO and Netflix started the big push to download TV series and films. Although piracy still takes place, the industry has crowded it out to an extent: with the gains accruing to the biggest media companies. Now musicians make money on their concerts, merchandise, etc., more than on their CD sales. Record companies like travel agencies and other service brokers are victims of what Andrew Shapiro (1999) called ‘the death of middlemen’.
The Internet facilitates a more direct marketplace linking content or services and consumers. The middlemen have not become extinct altogether, but those of any size that survive have had to develop online profiles, and press hard on their brand reputations, which in turn rely on reviews. They provide you with extended services when you book plane tickets, curating of content, sorting what is good and bad. And they market exclusivity and membership. Basic services are free but you pay for quality if you want more than the absolute basics. All of these changes have occurred in the move to online commerce. Just as offline banking is disappearing rapidly from the cities as the old lines to see the bank clerk are replaced by lines at the Automatic Teller Machine or online service, travel companies’ offline offices and record stores have folded and been replaced by their online twins. Indigenous digital companies are adopting the same strategies of developing levels of service: for instance, social business network LinkedIn is theoretically free, but higher-level services are reserved for premium members that have to pay. Even Spotify is now following this strategy. Basic music streaming is free but consumers have to face commercials and can lift these commercials by paying a fee – which is how Spotify profits. Quality and exclusivity come at a price, and information remains stubbornly unfree.
The most striking aspect of all this is the rise of the renting economy. In the era of selling material products, the product you bought was actually your property. While the language remains the same – you ‘buy’, for instance, Microsoft Office Suite – in reality you rent it, with limits on use and often terminal dates for renewing it. Such business practices of Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, Windows and other popular software packages, produce a continual revenue stream. This is from the first glance a cheaper solution for consumers but in the long run, companies have the upper hand as the surplus of yearly subscriptions is much more valuable than once-and-for-all payments. The renting economy has become intrinsically linked to the rise of cloud computing, where data, images and movies even are shared in ‘the cloud’ rather than on the computer. Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft’s OneDrive and Dropbox are examples here. Once again, the basic services are free but you must pay for upgrades and quality, properties that create the tech incentive to increase cloud computing’s extent. Even software is now often run from the cloud, from office packages to statistical software, which is all to the good as far as tech companies are concerned. They not only harvest an annual subscription fee but also, ultimately, control user’s data.
The rent economy is, again, irresistibly reminiscent of the feudal tenant economy, where the peasant cultivated land that was his or hers only by usage, but was in reality the feudal Lord’s. The Lord creamed a percentage off the peasant’s total product, and in return guaranteed ‘security’ – just as internet services do today. Feudal lords controlled the system by a mixture of threats of physical coercion and a code of honour that made the peasant identify with the system as a whole. In addition, there was the constant assurance of religion, promising an eternal reward for earthly hardship. Modern tech companies also preach a code, highlighting such benefits as speed, easiness, competitive pricing and, sub rosa, emphasising the threat of falling out of the latest tech system of gadgets, with the obsolescence of the last decade’s latest tech gadgets leading to difficulty in, say, downloading needed performance apps. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is a veritable missionary for the age of sharing (Johns, 2018) and Google has made their whole series of Chromebooks, small cheap laptop computers with high processing power but little storage space, with that function being taken up by the cloud. In reality, we are back at a system of landlords and tenants, of masters and serfs. But it is also a system wrapped up in a form of property unknown in medieval times – intellectual property – that comes with policing threats if you violate it by, for instance, violating your terms of service.
The sharing economy is fundamental in many areas of contemporary life. Uber and Airbnb are examples of exploiting assets as fast online and mobile devices are adapted to ordinary life, in an age when wages are stagnant and people are searching for ways to maintain middle-class lifestyles. For some, they are the ultimate examples of market economy, all the power in the hand of the consumers. Governments and trade unions think differently, as the services are often unregulated, the consumers uninsured and massive tax avoidance takes place. Further, as pointed out by critics like Fuchs (2014), the service providers are a new proletariat with low salaries, no rights and no pensions. Uber and Airbnb are just two examples of the way the sharing economy, in the hands of tech companies that are determined to raise the level of exploitation, challenges traditional institutions.
The discourse of sharing also spills over to the issue of creativity and copyright, as briefly discussed in Chapter 2. From the onset, there was a rivalry between those who insisted on applying orthodox business models to computing and the Internet and those who envisioned a non-proprietary discourse of collaboration and sharing. Although workers in Silicon Valley are paid salaries and tech CEOs are among the richest people on earth, the ethos of sharing still has an effect right up to the CEO’s office. Employees are encouraged to work collectively. Creativity in Silicon Valley is still often seen as a collective effort, like the workshops of the kind of artisans who produced the medieval cathedrals (Foer, 2017, p. 161). Intellectual property rights is a modern principle, funded in the liberal, democratic tradition. It is coupled to humanism and the idea of human rights. In an earlier time where people did not reflect upon the self in a modern sense, where the modern sense of political rights were unknown and where copying technologies were primitive and, for most people, non-existent, the core concept of creative property rights did not make sense. It was only in the eighteenth century that the notion of some kind of intellectual property right – and the contrary notion of piracy – emerged, in the print culture. In the American constitution, which emphasised a number of citizen’s rights, monopoly rights over the products of their invention were given for ‘limited times to authors and inventors’. How limited that time should be, and who authors and inventors are, has remained a matter of dispute ever since.
When Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook think that everything should be shared, it is because sharing is the lifeblood of the company. For Facebook a useful individual is one who participates, communicates and interacts (Bucher, 2018, p. 88). As more data the users share, as greater are the profits. On Facebook sharing is a condition for entry. The reward is access to data shared by – other users! Here, Facebook resembles the old case story from studies of economy of a society where people are making a living from cutting each other’s hair. But just as casino’s offer discounts to guests in order to gain more from them using slot machines and making bets, so too Facebook is the true winner here, since it merely provides the platform while the users provide the content for free. Facebook benefits from advertising, and the profits all go to Facebook. This is a soft version of the kind of taxations imposed by feudal lords, the Church and the Monarchy in the Middle Ages, which were often of the in-kind variety – corvee, or working on projects to the benefit of the aristocracy. The glory of such projects and the creativity of Facebook supposedly redound to the populace, but in reality, the discourse of sharing disguises an asymmetric, feudal relation of power.
From Medieval to Participatory Feudalism
In this chapter, I have argued that the platform economy has many similarities to the feudal economy of medieval societies. Medieval feudalism was based on a number of historical trajectories that arose out of the breakdown of the Roman empire and the rupture with ancient culture. Among the effects was the rise of small, warring states, the development of a knightly system of honour, and power and economic logics based ultimately on brute force, softened by the Christian ethos that promoted the spiritual worth of every individual. The cornerstone was dependency relations between kings and lords and between lords and peasants/serfs.
Digital feudalism is participatory and arose in a society with democracy and extensive economic freedom based on a regulated free market capitalism that was in the process of de-regulating under the aegis of neoliberal governance. In this transitional period, the liberal theory that had sporadically struck down the concentrated power of trusts and corporations by ‘busting’ them up gave way to a more tolerant attitude for monopolies that can be traced back to de-regulation and neo-liberalism in the wake of the Reagan and Thatcher eras. The result is that tech giants have been able to achieve dominant positions as content providers, information brokers and social network facilitators. The lifestyle of the average middle-class person is dependent upon the platforms for many of its key elements. The platform economy has not evolved through a regime of violence, terror and public whippings, or the invasions of barbarians. Rather, the new digital feudal lords have entered the scene riding clad in promises of marvellous user experience, efficiency and convenience -they are more like piped pipers in the medieval city of Hamelin than King Author’s knights. They have promised participation, friends and access to an infinite number of content and services. The language has not been based on threats of Doomsday and the purgatory but instead by a promise of a Shangri-La of convenience. This is what I will call persuasive feudalism. The price citizens pay is surveillance, dependency and the lack of privacy.
There is a large element of persuasive mystification at play here. It is true that the platforms provide convenience, connectivity, up to the minute information, and potentially a giant leap forward in one’s capacity to research information (important not just to scholars of, say, the Middle Ages, but to parents looking up illnesses that may be causing their children’s coughs and aches). Life is easier, connections better and the whole world is at your fingertips. Try to remember the Internet in the mid-nineties, the age before Google where search engines were at their infancy. There were several like Yahoo, Altavista, Excite and Webcrawler. They were each good for doing certain searches, but they were slow and only indexed a tiny part of an Internet that was much smaller than today. In 1998, Larry Page and Sergei Brin developed Google, the fastest and smartest search engine so far, based on algorithms favouring popular content but also reaching further around the Internet than ever before. Google developed and constantly added new features and more information: Google Books, Google Scholar, Google Docs to name a few. Google is incredibly convenient: it remembers your passwords, suggests search terms based on only a few letters, tell you about the weather, flight schedules and restaurants nearby. Google is like a digital servant. The information is based on massive storage and registering of user data, of search terms and of locations. Once again, the convenience is paid for by privacy and the fact that no other search company can gain a foothold after Google has achieved such a massive presence. But the ease of Google is so persuasive so most people don’t care.
The ‘like’ economy is also very persuasive. By emphasising the social aspects of social media and encouraging recognition by ‘likes’ on Facebook, ‘hearts’ on Instagram and ‘favourites’ on Twitter, platforms play with our brains and desires (Gerlitz & Helmond, 2013). Recognition releases dopamine in our brains and we crave forever more.
YouTube is another example, originating in the late nineties, when the idea that fans of movies and music and independent people making videos could all share their clips seemed communal and creative. Today, after the platform was bought by Google, it has become the world’s largest repository for films and clips and all kinds. Professional films (often illegally copied, an issue where YouTube continuously struggle), personal videos and everything in between are shared and viewed by millions. It is possible to find everything, from the Moon Landing to how to fix a radiator. Many use YouTube for procrastination: in the middle of a busy workday, you just have to see the clip shared by a friend or the latest cute cat video. YouTube is a weapon of mass distraction and people love it.
A final example of persuasive feudalism is the ‘multilogin’, the option of logging on to various websites and services, using, for instance, the Facebook or Google account. It seems very convenient as most people struggle to remember and organised the ever-increasing number of logins and passwords. However, the price of convenience has to be paid. Of course, Facebook and Google trace the activities on the other platforms and services and use the data to give you an even ‘easier and smoother user experience’. Translated, this means exposing you to even more targeted advertising.
Persuasive feudalism is also exercised negatively. We are kept bound to the platforms as the expense and hardship if skipping the digital life and its wonders become more and more costly. In my own research, I have found many who retain their Facebook account only out of ‘fear of missing out’. Without Facebook they are afraid of missing important social events or being unable to follow the social life of a community or even a workplace. Some also fear public shaming or social isolation (Linaa Jensen & S⊘rensen, 2013). Further, more and more media have been dependent on Facebook. Even public service broadcasters like Denmark’s Radio and the BBC have now moved much of their online activity to Facebook pages or groups because they want to meet their users where they are. In doing so they have to bow to the Facebook yoke as well, relaxing their exclusive control of data and content and allowing it to be juxtaposed to all the flotsam and jetsam Facebook generates. The rules are Facebook’s, based on American law and the logics of a public company: information must not offend shareholders and users across a globalised world.
Although medieval feudalism was based in another society and with other tools of power and control, I have argued here that the very structure of the platform economy has a distinctly feudal taint. Relations between tech companies of users are characterised by asymmetric relations of dependency and by increasing user surveillance. The Internet commons are increasingly colonised and monetised and the once free and anarchic Internet is subject to increasing regulation and control. I have shown how digital feudalism is participatory and operates via persuasion, distancing us from the cruder threats of violence that were behind feudal relationships. In sum: we are sacrificing autonomy and privacy for convenience and quick kicks of pleasure and entertainment.
- Chapter 1: The Middle Ages and Medieval Ways of Living and Thinking
- Chapter 2: The Medieval and the Contemporary Landscape of Information
- Chapter 3: The Public – Deliberation, Visibility and Mutual Surveillance
- Chapter 4: Community and Beyond – Medieval and Modern
- Chapter 5: Instruments of Internet Power
- Chapter 6: Structures of Internet Power – Algorithms and Platforms
- Chapter 7: Digital Feudalism
- Chapter 8: Politics and Publics
- Conclusion: The Return of the Medieval?