The Fight Against Digital Feudalism: Is Technological Serfdom Avoidable?

Last edited 23rd November 2020

Culture and Technology Social Change Evergreen Note evolution of technology

Questions and Context

Instead of asking, "how can we make computers more human in thinking, or aim to accomplish everything a human can do?", we should ask, "how can computers make use more human?" How can they remove some of the most burdensome work and allow us to focus on the things that truly define the human experienced? If machines can do everything we can do, but better, why are we trying to compete? What sort of changes do we need to make as a society to embrace the humanity of people that technology can afford us and leave the work to the machines?


A society's ability to progress technologically is not necessarily limited by the scientific and engineering capabilities of its members, but instead by the slow process of human and social evolution. What slows down the social evolution? Is it a refusal to adopt technologies that are unfamiliar? Or is it something else? Would the Luddites consider themselves anti-technologist or anti-capitalist????

The capture of machine productivity primarily by the capitalist class has led to direct conflict between members of society and technological progress.

So if the Luddites weren’t attacking the technological foundations of industry, what made them so frightening to manufacturers? And what makes them so memorable even now? Credit on both counts goes largely to a phantom.

Very much like Antifa. No leader, just ghosts the scare conservatives and law enforcement.

They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages.

This is one of the underpinnings of modern American socialism. Not to destroy the system, but to mold it to better serve the greater good.

What the Luddites Really Fought Against

The conflict between social adaptation and technological innovation is a phenomenon written about and observed from many points of view, though often not pinpointed as a social problem. We like to think of ourselves as an advanced society, so the idea that we create friction and conflict through our glacial pace of social evolution may not be palatable to many people.


Robert Pirisg, in his book, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, approaches this issue through the lens of reality building and reality perception. He argues that individuals may be more aware of the tension due to the patterns of thought used to construct their reality. He seems to suggest that the dissonance can be resolved through the ability to observe an object's underlying form in addition to its physical manifestation. While he dedicates a large part of his book to the discussion of the dissonance between technology and society, he fails to place this discussion in the context of social evolution. Instead, he observers it as a phenomenon experienced by individuals within society as a whole.

In Tim Bray's essay, Just Too Efficient, he argues that the inexorable drive to remove any form of inefficiency has created an economic system that is fragile and de-humanizing. Bray, in recognizing the growing role of technology and machines in our socio-economic system states, "...the more efficient you are, the less humans you need." His essay highlights one of the most critical shortcomings of our social evolution, that efficiency gains through mechanization are almost entirely realized by the wealthy class. Information from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that workers have become more efficient, but their pay lags behind drastically. This data points to a market failure. When economic gains are funneled almost exclusively to the capitalist class, the system becomes unstable as long term demand collapses. The unequal distribution of newly created wealth due to technological efficiency also exposes a failure in the ability of our social structures to re-organize in response to rapid change. Instead of using the increased power of machines to automate the more laborious jobs and raise the standard of living for all in the society, machines are used in conjunction with capital to disenfranchise the humans whose jobs they have replaced. The mechanization of our economic system cannot be reversed, and it is therefore prudent to reform our social order to reflect those changes.


Centralization of capital and technology

Fallacy of man vs machine

Fast tech, slow society

What would work look like in a completely mechanized world? Certainly it would be much different than what we now experience. If the efficiency gains realized by technological innovation were equally distributed, what sort of activities would consume your attention? The idea that a universal basic income through automation and mechanization would make everyone lazy and contribute to a decrease in economic activity is as foolish as saying that people are lazy for using a washing machine, or typing on a keyboard; technology has not made society lazy, but rather it has given us more time FIX. Of course, there will always be slothfulness as long as there are human beings, but our adoption of technology throughout history has shown that as long as there is time to fill, human beings will fill it.

The computerization of most economic activity offers a future that could be classes, a type of cyber-communism where compute resources are held in common and everyone is free to follow their interests in life without concern. Taking a cyber communist view of the future neglects the reality of the present. A more human centered future through the mass adoption of automation and mechanization is not simply, to expand on Slavoj Zizek's definition, "Free access to automation + the power of the soviets" [Zizek, 2002]. Today, a small number of companies control a large swath of the technology sector, and the gains that are realized from automation and mechanization are mostly taken by the capitalist class.

Our social and economic structures are ill equipped to handle a seismic shift such as a guaranteed income from complete automation of the economy. It may be enjoyable to dream about a society focused on the most "human" parts of existence: learning, creating, competing, and enjoying one's life. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has proven that many large countries have a social attitude that is openly hostile to the idea of social equity. Any perceived advantage whether real or imagined, is met with resentment and anger. any meaningful effort towards using automation to create a more equitable society will have to address these issues before progressing other initiatives.

Because our technology exists in a complex social, legal, and economic context, any discussion concerning world changing technology must address this context. Without addressing these systems, large scale technology will trend towards enforcing the status quo: those with wealth will increase that wealth, and those in power will maintain a tighter grasp, and social discord will enter into a self-amplifying feedback loop. For technologists, the questions to be asked are not only, "what can this technology do?", but also, "what is this technology's role in social evolution?", or "what social and/or economic evolution is necessary to realize the full potential of this technology?"

The transparency of the BitTorrent P2P protocol became its undoing, allowing for target lawsuits against users. The technology failed to take into consideration the social conditions and take into consideration the opposition to its purpose ( corporate lawyers ). SSB and other block-chain based social networks are a surveillance dream. Nothing can be erased and everything can be traced back to a specific device.

Ubiquitous and centralized design can lead to shock doctrine as a service which doesn't necessarily need to manufacture the crises itself, but can be quickly re-tooled and monetized in response.

Neoliberal Shock Doctrine

This is Fine: Optimism & Emergency in the P2P Network

Fast tech, slow society

Social disruption through technology has existed as long as there has been technology. Today, we often see this disruption fulfilling the Marxian prediction which expresses that the process of bringing traditional non-market activities (think gig economy) into the market will cause a breakdown of the social structure as all activities will exit the social sphere and enter the economic sphere [QUOTE]. The social and economic system we've created encourages and rewards individuals and organizations for being disruptive, arguing that technological advancement itself would not be possible without the spoils of disruption.

If large scale technological innovation is something that can only be achieved through external incentives, then any paradigm that wished to change society's relationship to technology without entrenching the existing power structures must provide a framework for incentivization. In a fully digitized society, there arises a notion of digital capital. this fundamentally differs from financial capital in that digital capital is essentially an infinite resource. Digital goods can be non-rivalrous provided that the issuer allows for infinite replication and production. In an economic system with infinite resources, how can you define value? In the absence of scarcity, value can be created through the process of social signalling. The ability to signal social status through the consumption and creation of digital goods has led to profitable business in a variety of sectors, from video games to email. While an inherently different economic model than the realization of efficiency gains via automation, social signaling fails to encapsulate the fundamental change needed fore a more equitable social and economic system, the decentralization of wealth. The value created by consuming social signaling digital goods is still guarded by the issuer of the goods, which forces contributors to this value system to either pay for the underlying infrastructure through rent or invest in a parallel system of distribution.


Shock Doctrine Neoliberal approach:

When a crisis arises that a central government is designed to deal with ( crises with high cost, large societal impact ), it suddenly becomes "to costly" for the government to be involved, and thus must be privatized. As more and more government services are privatized, one would expect the government budget to decrease. However the savings from privatization find their way back into the government budget through increases in law enforcement to police the newly disenfranchised class. This shock leads society to a state of Hypernormalization.

This is Fine: Optimism & Emergency in the P2P Network

Maintaining Police Legitimacy

  • the idea that so many disenfranchised people makes our social order unstable. What do you think will happen when millions of people have nothing to lose?
  • an economy that demands 100% efficiency from 100% of the participants 100% of the time is primitive and fragile. Think of jets that can run on only only a few of their engines

The problem of software is fundamentally one of language and its ability to effectively communicate information. The reason "clean" APIs feel that way is they effectively communicate or symbolize the underlying actions of the code. We live in a world of symbols, so the most human-friendly (and arguable the most effective) APIs are able to symbolize the underlying abstractions through language in a way that is easy to understand and build mental models upon.

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn Loc 972

Words create worlds, in software we can drastically accelerate this process through the mass dissemination of words and symbols. Each symbol is meaningless on its own, but out ability to attach meaning to them is why we can use symbols for computing and mathematics. We use abstractions constantly, and abstractions are probably the only way you can exist in the modern world. Many of these abstractions come in the form of the mental models we use to construct our reality, others are stories which we use to weave our internal narrative, and some are the had wavy explanations used to for understanding technology enough to use it.