How tech giants are like feudal lords and users are like serfs

Now it's time to get Medieval on your digital lives. What if computers and the Internet are turning us into serfs, and we've become dependent on the protection of feudal lords by the names of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook? According to Internet security expert and author Bruce Schneier, we pledge allegiance to these feudal lords by handing over our data. The hope, at least, is that these lords safeguard our credit card numbers and our privacy.

"I'm not saying this is necessarily bad," says Schneier. "For the average user -- my mother -- having someone else control security means security's better." 

So in the land of Apple or the land of Google, the companies are expected to maintain some kind of order. Virus-infected software isn't allowed in the Apple or Android apps store, for instance. But we serfs, in this extended metaphor, still don't have much in the way of rights.

"The downside of feudalism is that the lords have the power, and one of the problems with the feudal system is that the lords tended to ignore their part of the bargain pretty regularly," says Schneier, who wrote an Op-Ed piece in Wired about this. But, he says, there are ways to shake off our bonds, "It took national law to say to these lords 'you get this stuff, but you have these responsibilities as well.' I think a similar thing might be necessary in the computer world."

Like what? How about the right to carry away data if we leave Facebook, the same way we hold onto our mobile phone numbers if we switch companies? Facebook argues the data's theirs.

Schneier's book is called Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.


Black Friday; Cyber Monday. And then somebody was bugging me about Mobile Tuesday -- sales for people who buy using mobile devices. Instead, can I interest you in what's called Giving Tuesday -- some 1,400 charities and organizations are asking us to pitch in money and-or participate online in a meaningful way.

That type of social giving has been booming here in New York after Hurricane Sandy. Charities and other organizations have networked via Twitter and Facebook to help raise money and supplies.

"Even five years agao, social media was much less ubiquitous," says Anna North, who wrote a Buzzfeed piece about the jump in social organizing connected to the storm. "If you had a disaster like this people wouldn't necessarily be all over Facebook, Twitter, and posting on Tumblr. Now people do turn to social media to help out."

Among Anna's discoveries: a blog called Sandy Sucks, that's been delivering updated info about who needs things like space heaters. Another outfit turned Facebook into a carpooling tool.

And one last way to help fellow members of the human race. Go BIG. Cambridge University is pulling together a Center for the Study of Existential Risk. Why examine chances technology could bring an end to our existence? Think about it as a way to pre-empt the storyline of the Terminator movies. One of the co-founders of Skype and some Astrophysics and Philosophy professors are worried that advances in biotech, nanotech and artificial intelligence could -- if not managed properly -- lead to our collective termination.

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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