The Digital Yeoman's Plight
Digital man was not born free, and the technologies we now depend on will continue to make us less so, if not challenged.
Geoff Shullenberger

June 30, 2023

“Digital man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” So we have been told by a wide array of Jeremiahs as Web 2.0’s manifold discontents have become impossible to ignore. Accounts of the exact nature and cause of this fall from grace vary, but they share a grounding assumption that the assemblage of technologies known as “the internet” once embodied (or at least had the potential to) certain fundamental political values—free expression, privacy, individuality—and at some point ceased to do so.

This prelapsarian vision was influentially inscribed in a founding text of the tech canon, composed in 1996: John Perry Barlow’s cyber-libertarian “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist exemplary of the ideological migration historian Fred Turner has traced “from counterculture to cyberculture,” declared to the world’s governments that “the global social space we are building [is] naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.” As recently as ten years ago, when the success of a number of insurrections against tyrannical governments were being credited to Facebook and Twitter, this proclamation still resonated. Now, its optimism is barely recognizable.

It turned out, of course, that Barlow and like-minded cyber-utopians had a great deal to fear, and tech observers of all stripes have found cause for disillusionment over the past half-decade and some. It is hard to listen to the political right for long these days without hearing denunciations of Democratic-aligned Silicon Valley oligarchs and their employees, and the censorship to which they have subjected their political enemies. For its part, the liberal establishment, which during Barack Obama’s presidency had eagerly promoted the internet as a tool of global democratization, abandoned this view after Donald Trump’s victory and the rise of an international right-populist insurgency, and concluded instead that digital technology was a vehicle for dangerous authoritarianism.

In the end, the mainstream liberal narrative of digitally facilitated authoritarianism became self-fulfilling, but in reverse: the fear of fascist takeover legitimated the escalation of online censorship as well as the extensive clandestine collusion between state and corporate actors, as recently revealed in the Twitter files. The result has been the escalation of the right’s rhetorical backlash against digital liberal tyranny. From either side, the internet no longer looks like a space of freedom and democracy, but of oppression and persecution—whether by fascist troll armies or blue-haired moderators.

These strains of dystopianism tend to fall back to the terrors of the twentieth century, with MAGA digital fascism and woke digital communism figuring as twin menaces. Another strand of analysis reaches farther into the past to make sense of our tech impasses—surprisingly enough, back to the European Middle Ages, that era of relative technological stasis. I refer to the “technofeudalism thesis,” which as Malcolm Harris explains, “holds that 21st-century capitalism has been superseded by a new economic system overseen by Big Tech.” This new order is “feudal,” according to this view, because it elevates a handful of grandees (Bezos, Zuckerberg, et al) to ownership status while consigning the rest of us to digital serfdom. Like peasants who toiled on the land only to be forced to contribute much of the harvest to the great lords to whom it belonged, we reap only intangible rewards from the digital platforms on which we spend so much of our lives, while actual wealth accrues only to the platform’s owners.

The technofeudalism thesis has adherents across the political spectrum, as Evgeny Morozov notes in his survey of the relevant literature. The basic question at stake in debates around technofeudalism, per Morozov, is: “Are Google and Amazon capitalists? [Or] are they rentiers?” In other words, does Big Tech’s burgeoning wealth come from continuously expanding production to generate value, or does it come from monopolizing certain assets and thereby deriving passive income streams? To put it another way, is the position of a tech oligarch more analogous to that of a factory owner who must constantly reinvest profits to remain competitive, or a large landowner, who by virtue of his position can simply wait around for a new round of checks to arrive?

Subscribers to the techofeudalism thesis hold that the latter is a more illuminating analogy, even if they concede it doesn’t capture all the complexities of the digital business model. As Morozov observes, one can even find support for this view in the statements of some of the tech oligarchs themselves: Peter Thiel infamously argues on behalf of anti-competitive monopolies; moreover, Thiel’s associates include figures like Curtis Yarvin, who openly advocates for a variety of hi-tech feudalism.

But this new aristocracy is not the only crucial element in the technofeudalist class configuration. The geographer Joel Kotkin has argued that alongside the increasing monopolization of assets and income streams by a new aristocracy, there has also emerged what he calls a new “clerisy”: his term for the “journalists, entertainers, credentialed professionals, and teachers [who] provide the images, narratives, arguments, and artworks that reinforce the binding outlook, and they police dissenters as vigilantly as did the Inquisitors of old (though fortunately, so far, less ­lethally).” The recent rigidification of ideological orthodoxy, policing of dissent, and escalation of censorship, in Kotkin’s account, all function as an ideological legitimation layer for the monopolization of assets by the few. In this sense, he attempts to show, it is technofeudal material conditions that have given rise to a new digital authoritarianism.

Was all of this inevitable? Or could some halcyon era of the freewheeling internet have been preserved were it not subverted by a combination of state and corporate interference? Barlow has plenty of intellectual heirs today who share his premises when it comes to the original internet, but these suffer from factual and categorical errors.

One of these is a failure to recognize the role of the American state in building the infrastructural foundations of the internet. Speaking from “cyberspace,” presented as a “home of Mind,” Barlow told governments: “Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.” This is a remarkable claim. After all, ARPANET—without which the internet could not have come to exist in its current form —was, in effect, a “public construction project.” The implications of this fact deal a further blow to narratives of a fall from grace. As Yasha Levine argues in Surveillance Valley, state surveillance was not an imposition on the internet from the outside: it was central to the military intelligence aims that informed the original development of ARPANET. The internet is a panopticon today at least in part because it was designed to be one.

Another error common to Barlow and his intellectual successors is perhaps more fatal. This is the mind-matter dichotomy implicit in assertions such as: “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.” This view takes the historical denial of cyberspace’s origins in a “public construction project” and expands it into a philosophical credo in which the internet is seen to exist outside of all economic and political reality—a framework dubbed “digital dualism” by sociologist Nathan Jurgenson, which inflects common usage in such idioms as “IRL” and “meatspace.” No less than the transportation and communications networks that preceded it and to which it is often analogized, the cluster of technologies that generate cyberspace were and are, at bottom, a material infrastructure. This infrastructure is inescapably caught up in the broader political economy that has given rise to it, and which it increasingly shapes.

Barlow’s exclusion of the question of property from cyberspace turned out to be particularly fateful: it legitimated the emergence of a digital landscape in which users have no ownership stake in the technologies they use. Barlow’s countercultural formation no doubt informed his guiding assumption that, in John Lennon’s terms, to “imagine no possessions” was the aspiration of all utopians. Looking back from an era in which assets continue to be concentrated in the hands of the few, and the World Economic Forum, a clearinghouse for the schemes of oligarchic monopolists, cheerily assures us we will “own nothing, and be happy,” Lennon’s injunction is easier to obey—and the result seems patently dystopian to most of us.

Digital communism now looks like an ideological smokescreen for digital serfdom. One of the first observers to recognize this was the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, who in Who Owns the Future? (2014) argued that the “free” availability of the services of monopoly platforms was a disempowering illusion for the average user. By offering “free” access, these “siren servers” induce us to surrender our data to them, and thereby derive profits. As an alternative, Lanier proposes a conceptually provocative if impractical-seeing system in which we receive “micropayments” for contributions that contribute to the profitability of digital enterprises. In the end, this amounts not to a radical overthrow of the current system but a trickle-down-style reform of it.

Barlow’s Jeffersonian framing of cyberspace independence, evident in his title and certain passages of his manifesto, hints unintentionally at a more radical alternative. Thomas Jefferson’s influential vision of American democracy was not at all one where citizens were to be liberated from the “legal concepts” Barlow dismisses as obsolete and oppressive. On the contrary, Jefferson’s idealized political subject was the “yeoman”—the smallholding farmer whose liberty and autonomy was made possible by his ownership of a parcel of land. Although the yeoman is often associated with an ethos of rugged individualism and hostility to government, the US government played an interventionist role in making yeoman status possible, from Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase to the Homestead Act, which opened up vast new territories to smallholders.

The American state’s role in the development of the internet has more closely resembled its earlier role in the development of the railroads. Having made a massive public investment in the development of the railroad network in the form of land grants, it enabled the emergence of powerful monopolies that, in turn, were able to use their concentrated wealth and power to influence politics. Something analogous occurred when a communications network constructed by the state was turned over to private entities that quickly gained monopoly positions and became some of the most politically influential entities in the nation—as well as willing partners to state surveillance. Obscuring the question of property by presenting the new digital realm as a space of “mind” where immaterial rewards accrued was a useful smokescreen for this process.

On this basis, Morozov’s skepticism toward the technofeudalism thesis seems warranted, even if its descriptions of the present political order as a reversion to medieval hierarchies are appealing. “Capitalism,” Morozov writes, “is moving in the same direction it always has been, leveraging whatever resources it can mobilize—the cheaper, the better.” This was true of the monopoly system that, in the era of the railroads, forged the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, and it is true today.

Part of what ultimately curtailed the power of the Gilded Age oligarchy was the emergence of popular mass movements that challenged monopoly power. The rise of the labor movement was one well-known instance, but the more relevant precedent today is agrarian populism, which was essentially an alliance of the Jeffersonian yeomanry against large corporate interests. Contrary to the Jeffersonian vision of smallholding, however, a vast number were sharecroppers or tenant farmers who owned little and were massively indebted to landowners and merchants. The parallels with the present are not exact, but they may have more relevance than the feudal era for making sense of the class configuration of hi-tech monopoly capitalism. For Joel Kotkin, it is precisely the “yeomen”—small property-holders—who have faced declining prospects and rising debt in the dispensation he calls technofeudalist.

Others have made related arguments. In his recent book A Nation of Shopkeepers, the sociologist Dan Evans argues that the crucial class formation for understanding the present is not a so-called digital serf or peasant class or a “precariat,” but what Marx called the petty bourgeoisie. This intermediary class, contrary to Marx’s prediction that its members would ultimately end up proletarianized wage laborers, has continued to grow over the past century and a half. Digital technologies have accelerated that process. For instance, the gig economy has converted various subsets of what once was or might have been wage labor into new forms of “self-employment.”

The rideshare driver, in theory, is a small proprietor, but not unlike the 19th-century tenant farmer, he may in fact own very little given his dependence on and indebtedness to far more powerful entities. One response to this situation has been to demand gig economy workers’ recategorization as wage laborers rather than independent contractors, which might in turn enable them to organize unions. Another agenda, more difficult to formulate, might seek to make the aspirations to small proprietorship of those who toil in the gig economy real rather than illusory. This is the type of project that the American state has, at certain points in its history, and however imperfectly, taken on.

There have been hints of the emergence of a class-conscious digital petty bourgeoisie. Whatever the disappointments of the blockchain, the appeal of crypto to those disillusioned with the legacy banking system is clearly linked to the promise of a new tech landscape in which asset ownership is more widely distributed. A project like Urbit articulates a similar aspiration, as I have argued elsewhere. We might even view the GameStop phenomenon as a glimpse of digital yeomanry’s inchoate class-consciousness. But history suggest that mere “exit” from existing systems and institutions, as many in the spheres just alluded to tend to advocate for, is not enough: the channeling of these discontents into an effective political project also requires a political “voice” that may demand state intervention on behalf of the neo-yeomanry.

If the last few years have made anything clear, it is that the formal rights we took for granted amount to little if not grounded in ownership—a point the Jeffersonians of old insisted on. Anytime tech platforms censor, de-platform, and banish users, we are reminded that the First Amendment is of little help: the corporate owners of the enclosed town squares of our age, have every right to dispose of our property as they wish, and all we have are the Terms of Service we didn’t read when we signed up. Now, the same censorious regime of state and corporate power is threatening access to our other assets on similar grounds, as the de-banking of political dissidents has shown.

Digital man was not born free, and the technologies we now depend on will continue to make us less so, if not challenged. Perhaps we are finally waking up to that fact.