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Opinion

Mobile technology is turning us all into feudal serfs

Mobile technology is essentially dematerializing all forms of capital into cloud-based commodities. It sounds so futuristic, but the reality is feudal: Our money, our friends, our whereabouts, even our thoughts and desires, are being siphoned into corporate servers, turning us into digital serfs.

By Emily Walshe / April 22, 2011



Brookville, N.Y.

A Ugandan farmer transfers cash while standing in his field. An American teen "checks in" at a smoothie cafe, alerting his social network. An Icelandic fisherman "asks" the market what to fish for, locates the shoal, and plots his course against a predicted tide before heading out to sea. At any given moment, people from all walks of life are using mobile technology to beam up information and pull down influence.

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What do these exchanges have in common? Each reflects a radical shift in how we relate to the world around us.

This shift is made possible by technological leaps – in phones, satellites, and chips – that are doing more than making our access to information faster and our influence more pervasive. They are essentially dematerializing all forms of capital into cloud-based commodities. It sounds so futuristic, but the reality is feudal: Our money, our friends, our whereabouts, even our thoughts and desires, are being siphoned into corporate servers, turning us into digital serfs.

"Rule the air," touts one wireless carrier, but this tag line is terribly elusive. Virtual castles in the sky – built on the brick and mortar of user-generated content – stand protected behind a moat of tethering data plans and Wi-Fi roaming fees.

In a global sense, the digital divide is over. We're no longer separated by space and time. From an economic standpoint, of course, this is indisputably beneficial. Since knowledge is power, the rise of universal connectivity and information markets is vastly expanding human capacity for creating wealth. Yet from a values standpoint, it is deeply troubling. Because at the heart of these technologies lies a perilous challenge to human freedom itself: Can you still be the author of your own life?

Threat to our fundamental rights

Virtually unnoticed, the sovereign rights of man are being eroded by the conjunction of cloud-computing technologies and crowd-sourcing philosophies. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are central to our identity and well-being, but they're being dragged under the bus of innovation. Here's how:

The right to life is based on the idea that life is the standard of moral value. Its aim is to protect the individual's ability to take every action necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of his or her life. Implicit in this right – always – is the right to property. What happens, then, in this era where access trumps ownership?

Cloud computing is Internet-based computing, where shared information is provided to users on demand, like electricity. These usercentric, "pay as you go, use only what you need" systems are affecting nearly every facet of life. In the clouds, we are forever "clients" utilizing distant servers to borrow and invest in intangible capital.

Flickr, Bebo, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook: Where does all our stuff sit? It is no longer tucked away in albums or lining the shelves of our libraries, but with privately owned companies that can regulate it however they like. Our conversations, too – once reserved for the dinner table or the bedroom, boardroom, or classroom – now reside outside ourselves, our homes, and our dominion, in the air above us.

At first glance, the cloud promises equal access to all – the great leveler of men and nations. But the substance of the cloud is nonresidential, ephemeral, and beyond any single user's control. As such, it does equalize us – under the yoke of corporate masters who control the cloud.

We buy and sell from this invisible marketplace so swiftly that we're barely conscious of what we're giving up in gaining speed. As we zip through license agreements, we accept the restrictions imposed on our autonomy and are bound, in a sense, to labor upon the land of our lords. This can have profound effects on human freedom.

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