Digital Feudalism

 
 
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On the metro today, while reading on my iPad, I came across a post by Cory Doctorow from his site Craphound. In it he talks about DRM – the digital rights management system that we got told to use about twenty years ago.

He writes:

The established religion of markets once told us that we must abandon the idea of owning things, that this was an old fashioned idea from the world of grubby atoms. In the futuristic digital realm, no one would own things, we would only license them, and thus be relieved of the terrible burden of ownership.

They were telling the truth. We don’t own things anymore. This summer, Microsoft shut down its ebook store, and in so doing, deactivated its DRM servers, rendering every book the company had sold inert, unreadable. To make up for this, Microsoft sent refunds to the custom­ers it could find, but obviously this is a poor replacement for the books themselves. When I was a bookseller in Toronto, noth­ing that happened would ever result in me breaking into your house to take back the books I’d sold you, and if I did, the fact that I left you a refund wouldn’t have made up for the theft. Not all the books Microsoft is confiscating are even for sale any lon­ger, and some of the people whose books they’re stealing made extensive annotations that will go up in smoke.

What’s more, this isn’t even the first time an electronic bookseller has done this. Walmart announced that it was shutting off its DRM ebooks in 2008 (but stopped after a threat from the FTC). It’s not even the first time Microsoft has done this: in 2004, Microsoft created a line of music players tied to its music store that it called (I’m not making this up) “Plays for Sure.” In 2008, it shut the DRM serv­ers down, and the Plays for Sure titles its customers had bought became Never Plays Ever Again titles.

We gave up on owning things – property now being the exclusive purview of transhuman immortal colony organisms called corporations – and we were promised flexibility and bargains. We got price-gouging and brittle­ness.

Upon closer inspection of the blog post you will find that this constitutes part of a recent article Doctorow has written for Locus Magazine. You really should read the whole article there. It contains much more context and detail.

The final paragraph reads thus:

There’s a name for societies where a small elite own property and everyone else rents that prop­erty from them: it’s called feudalism. DRM never delivered a world of flexible consumer choice, but it was never supposed to. Instead, twenty years on, DRM is revealed to be exactly what we feared: an oligarchic gambit to end property ownership for the people, who become tenants in the fields of greedy, confiscatory tech and media companies, whose inventiveness is not devoted to marvelous new market propositions, but, rather, to new ways to coerce us into spending more for less.

This neatly encapsulates where we find ourselves today, and what lies in store for us tomorrow, unless we start doing something about it.

 
 
Posted on September 4, 2019