Technological Feudalism

Technological Feudalism

Are we technology serfs?

Reeve and Serfs harvesting wheat. Source: British Library

In the Middle Ages, serfs were tied to the land. They weren’t slaves—it was worse. They and their descendants were perpetually bound to their Lord’s estate. They couldn’t just leave. If the Lord wanted different crops, the serfs had to plant them. If the Lord went to war, the serfs had to take shelter. The nobility had a lot of privileges but very few responsibilities. In exchange serfs got security, of a sort: by storing the harvest in the Lord’s castle, raiders couldn’t just steal all their food.

In the tech world today, we are bound to our technological Lords—Apple, Google, Microsoft. We let them gather our data and we hoping they’ll keep it safe. They do maintain some kind of order—looking out for virus-infected apps, or protecting us from other data dangers. But they really are like feudal lords.

And they exact a price. They control the social space around their products; it’s difficult to have an email account not linked to the cloud, it’s hard to get your resume out if you’re not on LinkedIn. And they reserve the right to change the rules of the game, updating operating systems, installing security patches, even rebooting our machines in the middle of the night.

Companies like Facebook and Google insist our data is theirs, to do with what they will. Maybe it has been. But data, like land, can revert to its original owners. Is it time for a data jubilee? Will the serfs rise?

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

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