Democracy in the age of digital feudalism
7th December 2020
Author: Jakob Linaa Jensen, Danish School of Media and Journalism, Denmark
The platform economy of the Internet bears a strong resemblance to the medieval economic order, known as feudalism. I argue that the platform economy is a digital feudalism, where ordinary citizens are not made subjects through their work and dependency on a feudal lord, but by their data and the attractive affordances offered by the platforms.
This development is far from what was expected in the early years of the Internet. It was often seen as a new common, as a free space that was up for exploring and using, with no rules, boundaries and existing economic structures. The discourse surrounding the “IT Bubble” drew on such narratives. However, the common did not remain free for long. As the medieval common was colonised and exploited by churches, states and feudal lords, the once free Internet common is now colonised by “the big five” tech giants, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook who compete for attention, information and, ultimately, money. The dominance of the “big five” and other large tech companies is often referred to as “the platform economy”. Apple has its 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 also 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. Just as the feudal economy was based on cheap (or free) labour, the digital economy is based on the extraction and exploitation of user data, sociality and connectivity.
From a democratic perspective, the platforms pose even more important questions. By alluring devices and services, they persuade people to participate and consume in the platforms they set up, within the rules and frames defined by the architectures and algorithms of the digital services. Even more striking, by platforms of networking and participation, corporations now take over political agendas usually belonging within the legal and discursive domains of the nation-states, as platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have become important spaces for the performance of political discourses. Corporations are not bound by constitutions, guaranteeing civil rights like freedom of speech, protection against harassment and the option of fair treatment by the courts if anything goes wrong. They are, in fact, of exactly the opposite form, existing less for stakeholders than for shareholders. Although increasingly extending into the political domain, platforms are dependent on the interests of their owners – which are, in the end, merely about revenue – and the cleverness of their programmers. The rule of shareholders is, of course, exactly what one hundred years of the extension of the social insurance net and state regulatory agencies have tried to prevent. It has long been considered against democratic logics.
The problem particularly arises in the way discussions are filtered and even censored. Certain political discourses are favoured, other excluded, and the logics of these highly political choices are often disguised within an algorithmic juggernaut. If the locus of political power shifts to the platform society, censorship will certainly be an increasing democratic problem. Platforms like Facebook have become major players in the global and national public sphere. But they are not subject to principles of transparency and justice, governing political discourse and institutions within democratic countries.
In short, I argue that the platform economy has many similarities to the feudal economy of medieval societies. Contrary to medieval feudalism based on exercise of power, digital feudalism is participatory. 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. The price citizens pay is surveillance, dependency, and, ultimately, less freedom and democracy.
Jakob Linaa Jensen, Ph.D., M.A. in Politics is Research Director of Social Media at the Danish School of Media and Journalism. He has been associate professor of Media Studies at Aarhus University for nine years. He has published three monographs, three edited volumes and more than 30 international journal articles.
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