Feudalism is a specific type of relationship between Lord and vassal organised around property and allegiance. In the traditional sense it was where the economy ran off the providing of land in exchange for goods, labour and protection. At the top of this economy there was the king who owned and controlled all of the land. He would loan this land out to lords, knights and peasants and in return they would work and swear allegiance.
So why am I bringing this all up? Well it’s because although this is an extremely dated monolithic paradigm it is one that is still used today and no I’m not talking about a communist nation like North Korea; I’m talking about right here and now and I’m talking about you. If you are reading this off of an iPhone, if you have a Gmail account, Netfix, Facebook, Amazon, if you have ever used an app, then you are actually the metaphorical peasant of this feudal relationship and I bet you didn’t even know it.
Let me clarify…
Since the introduction of Word Wide Web, content has been in abundance do to mass amateurisation and participation. As I explained more thoroughly in my previous post this has led to the decline in its value. “The digital economy runs on a river of copies, these copies are not just cheap they are free” (Kevin Kelly). When content can be shared freely it no longer has value and as Stewart Brand states “information wants to be free but it also wants to be expensive”.
So how do you make money off of something that is free? You sort it, you package it and you make it uncopiable. This is exactly what aggregates like Apple were able to accomplish by instead of producing content found a way to tie it to their platforms. You can’t use an Apple app outside of an Apple product and like the peasants who did not actually own the land and could not share, use or sell it without permission from the King, you are granted access to content that you do not control. “The old Internet is shrinking and being replaced by walled gardens over which over which Googles crawlers cannot climb” (John Batelle).
So what are you getting out of this?
Predominantly convenience, in exchange for entering the walled garden you are promised quality information that is nicely sorted and tailored to you. You are also promised that everything works and because things run through a centralised system undesirable information (or anything deemed as such) can be weeded out.
But what are you giving up?
Well for one the internet itself, the decentralised free flowing system is gone and you are now paying a fee for what used to be free. That fee may be a monetary one such as the cost of a song on iTunes or a subscription to Netflix but it also includes your privacy. Everything you do within a walled garden is monitored and just as the peasants who had to work the land to cultivate goods, you are generating valuable data about yourself for ‘the king’ to sell.
For example Gmail manages your emails for free and in return it compromises the privacy of not only yourself everyone who has ever had correspondents with you, by scanning your emails for your personal trends and habitual behaviours. Facebook, is even less subtle than this creating a share culture where we willingly divulge large amounts of data about ourselves. Convenience is one thing but why are we so willing to share so much of who we are on social networks?
(Bernhard et al) suggests a reason for this might just be that we ascribe risks to privacy invasion more to others than ourselves due to a psychological mechanism similar to third-person effect. This coupled with high gratification and usage patterns creates a lax attitude towards privacy.