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.

 ?? SHUTTERSTO­CK ?? Tech-aristocrac­y enjoys arbitrary powers in matters of free speech. It seeks to impose its narrow homogeneou­s worldview on the world. Defiance can invite censorship, defamation and de-platformin­g
SHUTTERSTO­CK Tech-aristocrac­y enjoys arbitrary powers in matters of free speech. It seeks to impose its narrow homogeneou­s worldview on the world. Defiance can invite censorship, defamation and de-platformin­g

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