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Digital Feudalism in the Wake of 9/11

A battle to Terraform the web

In 1999, the pioneering User Experience designer Darcy DiNucci published her seminal text, Fragmented Future. Within it, she described the internet of the 90s as a “proof of concept” which was “only an embryo of the Web to come”.

She argued that while the internet of that time was a fascinating thing, it essentially acted as more of a prototype than anything else. It acted as a glimpse into the future. Back then, websites were static pages, filled predominantly with text, and containing almost zero interactive features. Some chatrooms existed, although they were limited, unregulated, and slow. E-commerce was beginning, but most people were too weary to partake. And perhaps most importantly, it was a nightmare to actually post your own content, meaning most people were stuck consuming other people’s information without ever submitting their own.

This is the Web 1.0 era– the birthplace of the modern internet. It was sluggish, dull, and digitally brutalist in its design. It was functional, and that was all it was expected to be.

Fragmented Future is also the first place where the term “Web 2.0” appears in literature. In very broad strokes, DiNucci describes Web 2.0 as the era in which the internet would truly come into its own. It would be a place where people could freely and autonomously communicate, post content, and engage with one another. Not only this, but it would be a place where technology would be at the forefront– while Web 1.0 was essentially just a way of displaying information, Web 2.0 would be intertwined with a plethora of technological advances, creating more meaningful and awe-inspiring experiences.

DiNucci was highly optimistic about the future of the internet, and she was right about a lot of her predictions. But after the Twin Towers crashed, along with the “dot com market”, two events that are more related than they seem, that level of optimism dried up in the West.

The concept of Web 2.0 survived past 2001, but that hope and positivity of a freely connected world had been extinguished. The next time the term “Web 2.0” would be used with any significance was by Tim O’Reilly, who launched an entire conference in its name in 2004. However, O’Reilly’s concept of this era featured a new concept: platforming.

While O’Reilly seemed to agree with DiNucci that connectivity should be at the forefront of the internet, the idea of freeness and autonomy had been sacrificed in exchange for ease of use. In a 2005 document, he calls the new era of the internet “The Web as Platform”. He describes it as a place where connectivity, communication, and content would all occur through third parties that would facilitate such activity. The platform was revered as the best way to onboard users, instigate engagement, and reach out to the everyday person.

O’Reilly’s vision of a Web 2.0 was one primarily focused on centralized bodies building platforms for the end-user. His document does briefly mention decentralization, and throughout it, there is an undertone of autonomy, but it is merely an undertone, as at the time he had not constructed a solid system of thought on how user-governance can be built into a global framework.

His ideas are surely still optimistic, but not in the way DiNucci’s were. The tragedies occurring in 2001 pushed the Western world to rush towards pragmatic online solutions headfirst, worrying little about how things would turn out in the years to come.

O’Reilly’s vision of the web was swiftly adopted by the world, and within just a brief few years, platforms became the dominant force on the internet. Before we knew it, the web was terraformed by the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple (known as the Big Five). Despite all being from relatively humble beginnings, these titans gained a stronghold of the internet, all under the guise of providing necessary tools for social empowerment and content creation via the all-mighty platform.

Our New Feudal Overlords

Tim O’Reilly’s internet became an architectural blueprint for the highly centralized electronic experience we are exposed to every single day. With platforms reigning supreme, the end-user finds themselves in a constant state of subjection by centralized bodies who tightly control the platforms we engage with.

Platforms became our home: we use them to write notes, make personal content, and save our own data via cloud options.

Platforms became our work: influencers, content creators, artists, investors, and marketers make their money through their online activity.

Platforms became our leisure: the virtual spaces we use to speak to friends and congregate with others are just cogs in these centralized machines.

And in many cases, our home, work, and leisure are all owned by the same corporations. Or, are at least built on their frameworks. Not only is this wildly dystopian, but it resembles a certain defunct political and economic system found in antiquity: feudalism.

Finding a solid definition of feudalism can be tough, as there are often academic debates surrounding whether it is primarily a political system, an economic model, or a social phenomenon. However, most definitions of feudalism revolve around a disproportionately imbalanced relationship between the individual and the beings that own the places they reside. It is a system where the person who owns your land often also owns your place of work, as well as the places you go for leisure. It is where landlords truly are lords.

Under a feudal society, a landlord would oftentimes own your home, your farm, the marketplaces, and even the pubs and churches you would spend time at. This is especially true in European countries. In other words, there were no reasonable means of escaping them.

In a feudal society, you had no other choice but to revolve your life around your overlord, and disobeying them or doing something forbidden by them would place your home in disrepute.

This is very much similar to how The Big Five have constructed the online world, bringing forth a type of “digital feudalism”, a term used by Danish professor and political scientist, Jakob Linaa Jensen. The term is used to describe a system where our internet activity is controlled by overlords who we must essentially obey if we wish to engage in life as much as possible.

Under digital feudalism, you may not risk losing your home, but you could risk losing your mind.

Our digital overlords have the command and control to limit or halt our ability to socialize and communicate with the world, which is a necessity for positive mental health.

In such a computerized age, socializing online is the norm, with most people doing so with both their friends and with strangers. Not only this, but online content creation is nowadays the standard for exerting yourself and showing the world who you are and what you believe in. But feudal tech lords can limit your ability to do so to a tremendous degree.

Bear in mind, platforms generally limit abusive and anti-social users (an arguably forgivable and even a good thing they can do, and one that is essentially an extension of enforcing a Hobbsian-style social contract). But these are not the only people who face their wrath. Many times, the price you must pay to engage with these platformed digital spaces is to give up your data. Sometimes this may happen by providing your real name and your phone number, and sometimes it might be more insidious, forcing you to give up heaps and heaps of personal data in exchange for entrance. Oftentimes, this does not happen through a conscious signing away of rights, but more so through covert methods taken by the platform overlords themselves, where they slyly harvest data and then sell it or use it themselves. The most famous example of this is with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a political science organization that used personal data handed by Facebook as a means of swaying political votes and poisoning the political discourse around the world.

If you want to use Facebook, and others like it, you subjugate yourself to this, whether they say so or not. It is the price you pay to set up an account (or you could say to rent out a space for your profile). Note that regardless of whether you use Facebook for work (such as your own business), to relax (by playing games on its platform), or by socializing, you must pay this price no matter what.

The All-Mightly Engagement

But it gets worse. Not only do you pay with your data, but the platform overlords of the Web 2.0 era demand something more from you: engagement.

Jakob Linaa Jensen notes “[w]hen Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook think that everything should be shared, it is because sharing is the lifeblood of the company.” All platforms of the current era live off a healthy diet of both personal data, and direct engagement from their subjects. They demand that we distribute likes, hearts, claps, duets, upvotes, reposts, retweets, and of course, create our own content.

One particularly harmful example of this is Reddit. Many subreddits (including some of the ones run directly by Reddit itself) demand users have a certain amount of “karma”, or upvotes, before they can engage in certain spaces. In other words, you must create content in some other places before you are allowed to enter others.

Platforms like TikTok encourage engagement in a very different way. They force you to begin liking content, otherwise, your feed will never become personalized, and so you will never receive the content you desire. If you do not engage with the platform, then you will never find your community, for you are at the mercy of the algorithm to show it to you. This is why more active TikTok users have more personalized feeds, where they find more people who represent themselves and who share similar experiences to them.

These new feudal lords hold the keys to your communities.

When it comes to encouraging content creation, it gets even darker. Places like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have learned how to tap into the human psyche and have found methods of encouraging us to post our own content. Everybody likes to know that others like what they’re doing. Approval is a big part of socializing. The Web 2.0 era is deeply aware of this, and so they use it as a tool to coerce us into posting our own images, videos, and texts. The likes and reactions we receive are then used to craft hierarchies within our groups, where those who have more “social proof” are viewed more favorably than others.

Sometimes, companies even provide more tools to those who are more active on their platforms. For a long time on Instagram, only verified users could post links inside their stories (the idea of “verification” is deeply problematic, but I believe it deserves its own separate discussion). Then, Instagram expanded this function to users who had 10,000+ followers. In other words, if you wanted to easily redirect people to other places online, you had to prove to the platform that you were worthy of such a feature. It is only recently that users can add their own links now regardless of their activity.

Feudalism, Privacy, and Security

As I explained earlier, the foundation of this neo-feudalist digital world was instigated by the rampant pessimism of 2001. Not only did the bursting of the dot com bubble make the internet feel barren and broken, but 9/11 had brought a stain to Western imaginativeness that the new millennium promised us.

9/11 had such a large social effect on the West, that it dampened a great many activities. One commonly discussed example is how airports became unpleasant due to increased security measures; so tight in fact they have led to a very common fear of the TSA and similar organizations.

These measures spread to the internet, too. Most famously, the Patriot Act, passed 45 days after September 11, gave the US government the special power of surveilling ordinary citizens’ online activity, including financial activities.

While the Patroit Act has always been problematic, it has always received a relatively substantial amount of support within the country. This is because surveillance became a substitute for security, which in turn made privacy a dirty word.

This ideological component of Western living seeped into the Web 2.0 era, where platforms also got involved in surveying. Some of this happened due to government pressure– there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to social media platforms and their involvement in criminal investigations. But what I find most interesting is how this trend of government surveillance set the tone for inspiring The Big Five to do the same themselves.

The Patriot Act, and other similar laws which took place around the world around the same time set a certain rule: that spying is okay now. Many of these laws received some level of support from the public, which taught our tech overlords that they could do the same without too much backlash.

It empowered them to disempower us.

Mass spying was deemed commonplace, as people accepted that governments were going to do it regardless. And so, what does it matter if another organization does it too? It primed the public up to make the agreement to let themselves get spied on by tech companies in exchange for entering social, personal, and work spaces. This, in turn, gave platforms enough “food” and resources to continue growing their empires.

Essentially, the West’s reaction to 9/11 gave rise to our current feudal situation. It pushed us to fear the individual, and favour central bodies, and this, in turn, caused us to lose our autonomy.

Killing the Feudal Beast

In the words of Janelle Monae, from her album, Dirty Computer, “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down”. We may still be under the thumb of digital feudalism, but there is no saying it will always be like this. We are most certainly able to instigate change and usher in something freer.

The kernel of digital feudalism is centralization.

Faceless, centralized corporations run our platforms. The leaders of these virtual lands are so distant from us that we cannot initiate an audience no matter what. We’re left disenfranchised and used.

The answer to this nightmare is to decentralize and distribute power, clawing it away from the platform overlords and spreading it through the public. It sounds hard, but it’s entirely possible. In fact, this is what I believe Web 3.0 is all about.

Web 3.0 is the newest era of online activity, a term popularized by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood. One of the core tenets of this new movement is that it takes us away from the platformed digital world and empowers us with decentralized tools that allow us to gain more autonomy and ownership whilst still connecting, communicating, and sharing content online.

It is as much an ideology as it is a technological epoch. The new wave of the web is focused on dissolving the platform overlords and giving us user-owned networks where we can engage with one another on our own terms. It is emphatically peer-2-peer, with minimal middlemen or intermediaries.

Final Words

Instead of people creating communities within the current Web 2.0 platforms we know so well, we need to begin community-building within a digital commons, or a space that is owned by nobody. To do this, we need to take ourselves off these platforms and move our activities over to decentralized third places that are distributed so widely that they cannot be majority-owned by anybody. This is what decentralized autonomous organizations (or DAOs) are all about.

DAOs are a huge part of the blockchain community for the simple reason that they give all stakeholders a voice; something you never see on a platform like Facebook or Google. DAOs are about empowerment.

Right now, DAOs are used almost exclusively by the blockchain space, but this is merely because Web 3.0 is being born from this industry. Give it some time, and when we fully transform into the Web 3.0 age, I strongly believe DAOs will be an instrumental feature of our online activities. They are the perfect antidote to our platformed hellscape of the web we have become to accustomed to.

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