Digital feudalism and why a commons is key to unlocking the future

Silicon sultans of Platform Nation must own up to their responsibilities or face the consequences

The promise of the Information Superhighway and the World Wide Web was immense: our world was to become more efficient and connected, with a flattening that would make Tom Friedman blush around his moustache.

20+ years later our world is more connected but the human factor played its part and the egalitarian level playing field has given way to a soft digital feudalism that is not kept in check enough. US politicians, save for a few exceptions such as former tech entrepreneur Senator Mark Warner, are painfully living in the 20th century while some of us are busy looking towards the 22nd. This Spring’s too-painful-to-watch octogenarian-heavy Senate hearings demonstrated the chasm between DC and Silicon Valley.

To be entirely fair, the inability of America’s elites to properly understand the tech world extends to most of mass media, where Nobel Prize Paul Krugman is still given a cushy perch, all the while never having admitted his spectacular whopper circa 1998 “the internet will have had the same economic impact as the fax machine.” Fast forward to 2016 and the election that spooked DC for its cast of shady characters eg the Mercer billions and their Cambridge Analytica, topped by Russia’s asymmetrical hack attack.

The Berkeley-style Well was overshadowed by AOL and the web grew into a platform-driven universe where powerful platforms rule over quasi-walled gardens: Facebook’s faux Open web nature, Apple’s addictive iOS and iTunes, Google’s easy-to-use services – they all operate with the user as worker and product ethos. Most services are free to use because YOU are the product. The hippies have been replaced by silicon sultans.

DC has awoken to the fact that 21st century America is now a platform nation laden with giant FAANG (Facebook Amazon Apple Netflix Google) who have been operated with limited government oversight, much to the benefit of their stakeholders, end users included. 2016 and the weaponization of user data has for the first time since the Microsoft trials of 1998 put back in the public discourse the necessity to examine the ill effects of size and market power. Steve Bannon’s non-conservative call for the nationalization of user data sounds excessive because it is but like the good Leninist he is, his stance revolves around a core concept America needs to update for the 21st century: the necessary digital commons.

Agrarian societies have long operated with a commons at the center of their villages, a parcel of land that is expressly the property of all, for everyone’s benefit. It’s a shame that Silicon Valley, whose entire history is tied to public goods in the form of military subsidies for technology, has devolved into a Randian faux libertarian bubble, whose memory of the ARPAnet is fuzzy at best.

2016 and its clear abuse of user privacy will no doubt result in a form of government intervention, the contours of which no one has settled on.

Let’s venture a few ideas at what would make sense to foster a digital commons as a means to counterbalance the digital feudalism:

  • 5G is a core tech for the next leap forward – ubiquitous always on connectivity. America’s telecoms were funded by private $ vs Europe’s formerly national players. Europe’s edge resides in competition borne out of government-mandated access at cost that the 1996 Telecoms Act (a McCain-authored legislation that telco lobbies happily gutted and defanged) promised but held back. 5G needs to be handled differently than broadband and the FCC should reverse lobby the telcos and cablecos that more competition is actually good for their bottom line.

Chances of this actually occuring: slim, at best

  • A public trust to be designated as the default guardian of user private data. The Equifax hack, the Yahoo hack, the 2016 Russia hack and countless other spell that private companies who are entrusted by the public with valuable personal data are at risk. A publicly sanctioned entity with a clear mission to act as guardian of this data would go a long way to re-establish users’ trust. This entity could also act as trusted 3rd party and an interface with large, data-hungry platforms. A number of academics have been calling for citizens’ data to be monetized, this public trust could serve as an ASCAP/BMI entity to ensure this comes to pass.

Chances of this actually occuring: Medium (not a pun)

Do YOU have ideas you’d like to submit ? Please add them as a comment to this post !