We’re living in digital serfdom — trading privacy for convenience

We’re living in digital serfdom — trading privacy for convenience
Credit: Anonymous (Queen Mary Master)

Think for a second: compared to your grandparents and parents, what do you actually own outright?

Why own when you can rent, license, or subscribe? This seems to be the new mantra, where nothing is permanent — but everything is convenient. This is the era of the digital nomad, and consequently, it’s also the era of the digital serf. The masses of serfs in the feudal period in Europe provided the labor, and the owners of property reaped the profits. Today, the labor is largely data, and the properties are digital.

Before we dive into digital serfdom, let’s take a look at what is actually happening now. The percentage of households without a car is increasing. Ride-hailing services have multiplied. Netflix boasts over 188 million subscribers. Spotify gains ten million paid members every five to six months.

The model of “impermanence” has become the new normal. But there’s still one place where permanence finds its home, with over two billion active monthly users, Facebook has become a platform of record for the connected world. If it’s not on social media, it may as well have never happened.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal uncovered how vast amounts of Facebook user data was taken and used to influence and sway public opinion. It’s turning the public’s perception of the true nature of the social contract they signed up for upside down. Worryingly though, it hasn’t really affected Facebook user numbers or engagement levels. And the recent revelations barely scratch the surface of how much of our identity and labor we have given away for access and convenience.

Our digitally enhanced lives have put tracking dots on each of us. On every website we visit, our clicks and actions are data that’s mined without our knowledge. Over 3.7 billion human beings use the internet today and the ways we use it are increasingly personal. We shop, bank, and store photos. We use search for just about everything and GPS to get almost everywhere. Convenient? Absolutely. Secure? Not really.

How many times have you participated in a free silly online quiz like “what kind of cat were you in your past lifefor a bit of fun, while unknowingly giving up access to your personal data to unknown sources? (Full disclosure: I’ve done it too!)

Nothing is free

The problem isn’t an online quiz about cats or our digital lifestyle. The problem is that we are sliding back into a feudal system while barreling into the future.

How? By not paying attention to the first law of economics — nothing in life is free.

By engaging with online platforms, networks, and digital middlemen, we voluntarily exchange our identities for services, access, and convenience. We have converted our activity and labor into profit for these same platforms. We freely offer our ideas, personal information, and personalities to the world.

It is we, the 3.7 billion human beings using the internet today, who serve as unpaid content producers for platforms such as Facebook and Medium. Our daily interactions, transactions, and ideas are now stored in third-party clouds, bringing in eyeballs to ads and earning millions for these organizations.

By doing so, we have once again become serfs. Not like the serfs of feudal times, who were apparently free because they labored on their lords’ estates and earned enough to live but not enough to improve their condition. In this case, our serfdom means tilling a digital field. We willingly trap ourselves in a cage, but a digital cage, chasing likes and clicks in a relentless cycle.

When doing a search on a major search engine, have you ever seen a disclosure about how the platform chooses to serve you ads and information to generate revenue based on the information it gathers from you? When you download a new app and it requires a long list of permissions — to your contacts, photos, and microphone — do you just accept these intrusive (and often excessive) requests and download it anyway?

In our digital-dependent world, what other option is there? That car hailing service you use almost every day has records of who you are, where you go and when — but you need it to get around. And the thought of not backing up your important documents to the cloud seems irresponsible. In order to enjoy any convenience in your time-crunched life, you are forced to hand over your most personal information in order to use services that, for many of us, feel essential.

Even something as simple as bank transactions, there’s a reason so many great credit card promotions pop up on your screen. It’s all about giving you perks to access your payment data. With it, companies build on the approximately one trillion dollars in annual transaction fees that feed that industry. Even WeChat and Facebook have jumped on the payment platform bandwagon.

In the developed world, we think little of this. We are used to having monetary transactions go through intermediaries, so people tolerate transaction fee friction. Interestingly, it is the emerging economies that may be the first to experience some freedom from this.

Take control and privacy back

Approximately two billion people are unbanked, so their financial and purchase data is offline. A majority of these people are in developing nations. Blockchain technology is often cited as having the ability to enable these communities to leapfrog traditional and invasive network of financial institutions. Exciting and liberating, most certainly, but early technology is not without its problems.

Bitcoin, for example, was celebrated with much fanfare as the answer to privacy and to fast, easy money transfers. Miners exploited this cryptocurrency five years ago and it’s actually neither private nor efficient. Due to mining, Bitcoin consumes an exorbitant amount of energy. In fact, the energy used mining bitcoin in 2017 surpassed the energy consumption of Ireland and most African nations. Furthermore, it’s not private at all. The data is stored on a public, unchangeable ledger.

Most blockchains are not actually decentralized. Bitcoin and Ethereum, for example, use “miners” to verify transactions and they have mostly merged into a handful of large mining pools, reducing security and performance. That was not the initial pure design intent.

Technology is continuing to evolve as is the nature of trust. Intermediaries were created to establish trust between unconnected parties, but in the era of Equifax leaks and Cambridge Analytica scandals, things are set to change again.

In this phase of digital evolution, truly decentralized solutions won’t be verified by mining pools but instead, by networks of devices themselves. This allows for localized ownership of your digital assets. This puts control and privacy back into your hands.

In the end, no matter how much or how little you own in the future, your data and identity may be your most valuable assets.

If you can help it, don’t give them up for a free email account, a free credit card, or a free quiz about cats. Know your value and value what you own.

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