We’re over two decades into an era of digital feudalism.
Feudalism is a centuries-old concept. In medieval times, the nobility owned vast amounts of land. Serfs worked the land to create value, but most of that value was confiscated by the landlord.
Instead of farm produce, today the new asset class is data—created by us, but captured by digital landlords such as social-media companies, search engines, online retailers, governments, and banks. “Surfing the internet” has become “serfing the internet,” with users giving up intimate details of their lives for the internet lordships to aggregate, expropriate, and monetize. We, as the serfs, only get left with a few lousy cabbages.
This is important, because this data isn’t just the biproduct of your labor. It is the stuff of your identity in the digital age.
All this data constitutes a “virtual you.” The digital crumbs that you leave in daily life create a mirror image that knows more about you than you do. You probably can’t remember dozens of your personal identifiers: your driver’s licence details, credit-card numbers, government information. But you definitely don’t know your exact location a year ago; what you bought or what amount of money you transacted; what you said online; or what medication you took or diagnosis you received.
And that’s just the beginning. In the future, the virtual you will contain detailed medical information like your heart rate, blood pressure, or myriad other real-time measures of what you do, how you function, where you are, and even how you feel.
The trouble is that the virtual you is not owned by you. “Imagine if General Motors did not pay for its steel, rubber, or glass—its inputs,” economist Robert J. Shapiro once said. “That’s what it’s like for the big internet companies. It’s a sweet deal.”
We create the asset: They expropriate it. Yet we still thank them for use of their land, rather than demanding what is rightfully ours....