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.
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And freedom is perhaps the most fundamental issue of the Digital Age. The right to liberty protects the individual's ability to think and to act on his own judgment, either rightly or wrongly. But this freedom is something achieved, not given; and it is predicated on the ability to think critically, independent of some mechanical thingamajig.Skip to next paragraph
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Can we be free when our encounters with the media are dominated by an engineered response? Google's Instant, for example, allows you to scan results as you type your question – apportioning answers according to its own algorithmic relevancy ranking. The result? Google "Martin Luther King" and white supremacist David Duke's nasty site pops up third.
Can we be free in a culture where information is exponentially propagated and propagandized? If you, and 10,000 others in proximity of your home, Google "flu symptoms," this intelligence is flagged and classified at their headquarters well before the National Institutes of Health have a clue. Facebook ads can figure out which users are gay, and cellphone companies retain animated maps of your calls, texts, and locations at any given time in your contract.
Is freedom possible with omnipotent eyes in the sky? How can it be when satellites, global positioning services, and geolocation devices increasingly direct and record our experience?
The trouble with 'wiki-truth'
The right to pursue happiness protects our individual ability to live for our own sake, rather than for the sake of society. A free mind does not work under compulsion; it does not subordinate its grasp of reality to another, or sacrifice its view of the truth to public opinion. Wiki-worlds, built around a "crowd sourcing" philosophy, have led to social constructions of truth that challenge established notions of expertise and ascendency. When does public consensus become a fact? If enough of us agree that something is true, does that make it so? In a cacophony of equal voices, when does one idea ascend above all others? To what extent does this have to do with money?
Both cloud and crowd are marketed as "em-powering," but our experience with smart phones and third-party apps suggests that this empowerment quickly becomes dependence, then subservience. When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton heralded the political and social forces of a "free, open, and secure Internet" in the wake of Egypt's uprising, she missed the full picture. Freedom is illusory in this context. Access providers ultimately control our ability to freely assemble.
Although information in the clouds appears to be free, make no mistake; it is not a public good. It is bought and sold, stored and delivered through private, proprietary, and profitable enterprise.
Our forefathers established the perfect launching pad for free enterprise and technological growth, entrusting future generations to hitch our wagons to a star. So here we are in the high-tech heavens, unaware that our orbit is escaping the safeguarding gravity of our rights. That doesn't mean we must give up innovation. We can still embrace technological automatism without losing our humanity, if we cultivate a clear understanding of the human capital we wish to preserve.
By consciously expressing more dominion over our lives (and insisting that access providers hold to this ideal), we can transcend our technologies to ensure that the elements of life that sustain our humanity – our freedoms, our realities, our present moments, and predictive futures – will not vanish in the clouds.