Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur)
In the digital era, the rise of techno-feudalism
With sheer computing power, unprecedented concentration of economic power, and ability to shape society, a new tech-aristocracy is challenging the State
Technological disruptions are causing far-reaching upheavals in the economy, society and polity. The latest standoff between India and foreign companies over IT regulations is part of a worldwide trend. It is indicative of the growing power of tech companies to defy and undermine State power.
Technological revolutions are the only true revolutions in history that transform a society’s economic, social and political organisation. Over the past few centuries, technological progress enabled the decline of feudalism due to industrialisation, the rise of industrial cities, induced labour mobility, and the transfer of economic power from the landed elites to the industrial- and middleclass. It culminated in the rise of the nation and nation-state and a central government strong enough to curb the arbitrary powers of feudal and aristocratic elements.
But the same technological progress is now giving rise to a new tech-aristocracy while the State’s power slowly withers away. This phenomenon can be called techno-feudalism, which rests on three pillars: Sheer computing power, the unprecedented concentration of economic power in a few private hands, and the ability of tech-aristocracy to shape society. Old feudalism rested on control of land, while techno-feudalism rests on control over digital real estate. The old feudal class enjoyed exemptions designed to facilitate the accumulation of arbitrary powers. Techno-feudalism has exemptions such as intermediary rules, loopholes to bypass data localisation and tax compliance.
Old feudalism preached a doctrine of birth-based inequality. Techno-feudalism fetishises meritocracy to justify its breaks on social mobility, except at the very top of the tech-aristocracy. Old feudal fiefdoms were small and deliberately fragmented to control the concentration of too much power by making economies of scale impossible. Such restrictions are gone under techno-feudalism, as is evident by the rise of Big Tech, which dwarfs the industrial and financial elites. Big tech are not monopolist but they own the market itself.
The old feudal class presented itself as the champion of liberty against the tyranny of the king and spoke a language of rights and duties while suppressing those at its mercy. Technofeudalism positions itself as upholding liberty against the State and speaks a language of rights and civic duty while amassing arbitrary power.
Like old feudalism, techno-feudalism corrupts and subverts the law and all branches of government to such an extent that governments find it impossible to take any action that could control their rapacious behaviour. And just like the old feudal class, the new tech-aristocracy is constantly engaged in a turf war to capture more digital real estate and augment its control over data and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). Many Big Tech companies resemble East India Company. They exercise monopoly power, are rich, indulge in corrupt practices and subversion of the system while refusing to pay legitimate taxes or follow sovereign laws.
The new tech-aristocracy can reshape society. Never in history have so few people had the power to decide the public consensus while remaining detached from the masses. It is this ability that has made them too powerful for any country to handle. It was visible during the Australia-google standoff or in Twitter’s shenanigans in India and across the world. And the less we talk about behemoths such as Amazon, the better.
Tech-aristocracy has the power to intervene in local politics and unseat governments via subtle manipulation of political discourse by leveraging their control over data and means of communication. This new aristocracy has spawned its own brand of ideological constructs and foot soldiers to take on the power of the State.
It has acquired stakes in newspapers, magazines, and new means of entertainments such as over-the-top (OTT) platforms. It is moving fast to control the future of education by setting up edutech companies. We already think about fintech when talking money, and not banks.
The anarchist and woke ideas empowered and favoured by technofeudalism serve the function of weakening the existing political order and legitimacy of the State, while deflecting attention from the concentration of power by the new tech-aristocracy. The rise of social media and extreme socio-political polarisation has gone together. The political intermediation process is breaking down, and the democratic consensus is ever more difficult to achieve. It is making societies increasingly ungovernable, thus weakening the State and sapping it of its legitimacy.
Tech-aristocracy enjoys arbitrary powers in matters of free speech. It seeks to impose its narrow homogeneous worldview over the rest of the world. Defiance can invite censorship, defamation, de-platforming, even purge from the internet, which in today’s world is as good as an exile in the wilderness. The ideas of due process, the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and the right to appeal and seek judicial redress are being rendered meaningless, with the new tech-aristocracy imposing its private laws and acting as judge, jury and executioner and recreating a world eerily similar to medieval feudalism.
This is accompanied by stagnation in the socioeconomic mobility of the masses due to restructuring of the economy caused by the same tech disruption that has created the conditions for techno-feudalism. Jobs are disappearing. The middle-class is being squeezed. And more people are trying to eke out a living from the gig economy, which effectively reduces them to a new serfdom.
It is difficult to predict the future as technological transformations cannot be stopped. But starting a discussion outside the academic and intellectual orthodoxy and narrow political contestations may be a step forward.