Digital Serfdom


ˈdɪʤətəl ˈsɜrfdəm

A condition where consumers give up their personal and private information in order to be able to use a particular product or service.

Serfdom is a system of forced labor that exists in a feudalistic society. It was very common in Europe during the medieval age. In this system, serfs or peasants do a variety of labor for their lords in exchange for protection from bandits and a small piece of land that they can cultivate for themselves. Serfs are also required to pay some form of tax often in the form of chickens or crops yielded from their piece of land.

Hassan Khan in The Next Web points out that the decline of property ownership is indicative that we are living in a digital serfdom. In an article he says:

“The percentage of households without a car is increasing. Ride-hailing services have multiplied. Netflix boasts over 188 million subscribers. Spotify gains ten million paid members every five to six months.

“The model of “impermanence” has become the new normal. But there’s still one place where permanence finds its home, with over two billion active monthly users, Facebook has become a platform of record for the connected world. If it’s not on social media, it may as well have never happened.”

Joshua A. T. Fairfield elaborates this phenomenon in his book “Owned: Property, Privacy, and the New Digital Serfdom.” Fairfield discusses his book in an article in The Conversation, stating that:

“The issue of who gets to control property has a long history. In the feudal system of medieval Europe, the king owned almost everything, and everyone else’s property rights depended on their relationship with the king. Peasants lived on land granted by the king to a local lord, and workers didn’t always even own the tools they used for farming or other trades like carpentry and blacksmithing.

[…]

“Yet the expansion of the internet of things seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law – intended to protect ideas – to control physical objects consumers think they own.”

In other words, Fairfield is suggesting that the devices and services that we use — iPhones, Fitbits, Roomba, digital door locks, Spotify, Uber, and many more — are constantly capturing data about behaviors. By using these products, consumers have no choice but to trade their personal data in order to access the full functionalities of these devices or services. This data is used by private corporations for targeted advertisement, among others. This system of digital serfdom binds consumers to private corporations who dictate the terms of use for their products or services.

Janet Burns wrote about Alex Rosenblat’s “UBERLAND: How Algorithms Are Rewriting The Rules Of Work” and gave some examples of how algorithms use personal data to manipulate consumers’ behaviors:

“For example, algorithms in control of assigning and pricing rides have often surprised drivers and riders, quietly taking into account other traffic in the area, regionally adjusted rates, and data on riders and drivers themselves.

“In recent years, we’ve seen similar adjustments happen behind the scenes in online shopping, as UBERLAND points out: major retailers have tweaked what price different customers see for the same item based on where they live, and how feasibly they could visit a brick-and-mortar store for it.”

To conclude, an excerpt from Fairfield’s book cautions: 

“In the coming decade, if we do not take back our ownership rights, the same will be said of our self-driving cars and software-enabled homes. We risk becoming digital peasants, owned by software and advertising companies, not to mention overreaching governments.”

Sources and Further readings:

Fairfield, Joshua A. T. “Owned: Property, Privacy, and the New Digital Serfdom.” Cambridge Press. https://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/law/property-law/owned-property-privacy-and-new-digital-serfdom#JiVMgvsMOg6Zer5x.97 

Fairfield, Joshua A.T. “The ‘internet of things’ is sending us back to the Middle Ages.” The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-internet-of-things-is-sending-us-back-to-the-middle-ages-81435 

Burns, Janet. “Algorithms And ‘Uberland’ Are Driving Us Into Digital Serfdom.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetwburns/2018/10/28/algorithms-and-uberland-are-driving-us-into-technocratic-serfdom/#7887dccc6705

Khan, Hassan. “We’re living in digital serfdom — trading privacy for convenience.” The Next Web. https://thenextweb.com/contributors/2018/11/10/were-living-in-a-digital-serfdom-trading-privacy-for-convenience/