The Road to Enserfdom

The Specter of Being Owned by Our Devices

Our printer ordered itself some ink last week. Does yours do this? We have a newer HP, one of those machines that is constantly online and monitors both its own ink consumption and our paper use. It makes suggestions about how much we should print. And the machine is not very happy with us for changing our paper use habits … or, I guess, some programmer at HP is not very happy with us. We cheerfully ignore its suggestions, but that silicon dolt ordered itself ink it doesn’t even need, and I was charged real money for it.

Ours was a minor problem, but that of Brandon Jackson was not minor. This past May, Jackson was locked out of his Amazon accounts, including use of his Alexa, as has been reported in Tablet magazine online, and he found the company less than optimally responsive to his requests for assistance. Amazon had locked him out because of a complaint from a delivery driver who had reacted to words spoken, not by Jackson himself, but by the automated message system of another “smart” device: Jackson’s doorbell security system.

Commenting on Jackson’s rather unsettling experience, Jarod Facundo summarized the problem well:

Amazon’s intrusion into Jackson’s life, then, should not be understood within the context of protecting workers—which might begin by giving them adequate time to use the restroom—but rather as part of an emergent regime of technological control. The culmination of years of debate about political and civic norm moderation on social media and in public discourse has created a new normative standard in which “innocent until proven guilty” is now viewed as an oppressive and antiquated relic. As the new unelected masters of public discourse, tech giants like Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Facebook, have been encouraged to execute summary punishments of users for mere accusations of racism or “disinformation.”  

With consumers ceding for the sake of convenience control of their devices, and even their own homes, to systems operated by remote servers, the question facing the 2023 consumer is, Who owns whom?

When the Company Store Strikes Back

Brandon Jackson's smart home headache is not unique, nor is it the worst of the problems documented with these systems so far. As The New York Post reports, people using these devices have not just been subject to punitive action by their service providers based on thought crimes they are (in Jackson’s case) mistakenly believed to have committed, they have seen their systems lock them in their houses without warning, lock them out, or fail to lock at all, and they have been subjected to hacking attacks that the providers could not effectively stop.

In the case of heavily networked smart homes, outages of service can mean that you have no control at all over anything in your home, including lights, locks, and your refrigerator. When an outage happens, everything connected to the smart home system is effectively inoperable for as long as the outage lasts. These technical problems alone are worrisome enough. More worrisome is the potential for political or ideological abuses. If a man can be kicked off his accounts or locked out of his house for a misunderstood “racist” remark, imagine the digital witch-hunts that could ensue should the operators of the systems decide to surveil homes for “hate speech” or “disinformation” according to whatever way their companies define those terms—as in, read Romans 1:18-31 aloud, or quote Jordan Peterson’s assessment of the anthropogenic global warming scam, and your house goes dark and cold in January in Michigan.

With “smart” devices, regardless of who the provider is, you don’t own them; the company store does. Effectively, they own you as long as you want to make coffee, for example. Or keep your groceries from spoiling. Or see at night. Or heat your home. Those sorts of things.

Digital Feudalism: Not Just a Buzzword

The term “digital feudalism” has been discussed in worried tones by legal scholars and consumer advocates for a while now. The term describes this new and threatening relationship between consumers and technology companies. Though there are multiple academic studies of the subject, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow's description of it is succinct:

If the manufacturer gets to override your decisions about the things you buy – and felonize any attempt to wrest control back – they [sic] property ceases to exist. We become tenants of our devices, not owners.

It's digital feudalism, in which an elite owns all the property and we get to use it in ways they proscribe. The difference is that today, our aristocracy isn't even human.

The destruction of personal ownership, the basis of property rights in any healthy civilization, is worrisome, and it has prompted significant backlash already in the form of the “Right to Repair” movement. This movement is fueled by consumers frustrated with the heavy-handed, costly, and legally questionable measures taken by technology companies and “smart” appliance manufacturers to control their use of their own devices. It has met with some success in the courts, but, as James Meigs reported in Commentary earlier this year, companies from GE to John Deere are fighting for their “right” to digitally enserf you. 

The real danger, though, is that the “digital aristocracy,” as Doctorow puts it, is human, and as such is driven by human motivations such as pride, arrogance, greed, and hunger for power. Worse still, we trust them. Bernard Marr, writing in Forbes in 2016, put it this way:

[E]ven more insidious is the idea that our data could be used against us by those who are meant to protect us. Police, insurance companies, medical doctors, employers are all already using data to make decisions about us based on statistical averages rather than the person as an individual.

And that is dangerous. That is where we run into the problem of digital feudalism, where the tech-elite control and rule the world.

That danger is exactly what we saw manifested in the case of Mr. Jackson in a very mild form. The prospect of having one’s entire livelihood wiped out, access to one’s home, car, telephone or other electronic communications with anyone anywhere denied by the service provider, or, more sinister still, by a government agency of “right-think” to which such service providers are answerable, is not, lamentably, the stuff of dystopian Huxleyan science fiction. A system like this, a social monitoring and behavior modification technology built into networked devices, has already been implemented in China in a form frighteningly reminiscent of that predicted in the British sci-fi suspense series Black Mirror in its episode “Nosedive.”

The chief difference between the disturbing fiction and the more disturbing reality, as one writer at The New Statesman has put it, is that the reality is much, much worse. If the expansion of this symbiosis of corporate and government power embodied in smart devices continues, not only we will own nothing, we will be owned by the manufacturers of the products we are allowed to use. On their terms.

That being the case, it seems that soon, if not now already, the only way to shop smart will be to buy the dumbest devices you can find.

is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.

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