This was a utopian vision, but some of it did come to pass. Internet marketing has transformed commerce. The entertainment industries have been transformed by things like MySpace and YouTube, and are now more open to outsiders. Mass media has changed dramatically, and some of the most influential people in the media have come from the blogging world. There are new ways to organize politically and run elections. Crowdfunding has made tens of thousands of projects possible to finance, and crowdsourcing made more types of projects possible. Facebook and Twitter really did help topple governments.
But that is just one side of the Internet’s disruptive character. The Internet has emboldened traditional power as well.
On the corporate side, power is consolidating, a result of two current trends in computing. First, the rise of cloud computing means that we no longer have control of our data. Our e-mail, photos, calendars, address books, messages, and documents are on servers belonging to Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and so on. And second, we are increasingly accessing our data using devices that we have much less control over: iPhones, iPads, Android phones, Kindles, ChromeBooks, and so on. Unlike traditional operating systems, those devices are controlled much more tightly by the vendors, who limit what software can run, what they can do, how they’re updated, and so on. Even Windows 8 and Apple’s Mountain Lion operating system are heading in the direction of more vendor control.
I have previously characterized this model of computing as “feudal.” Users pledge their allegiance to more powerful companies who, in turn, promise to protect them from both sysadmin duties and security threats. It’s a metaphor that’s rich in history and in fiction, and a model that’s increasingly permeating computing today.
Medieval feudalism was a hierarchical political system, with obligations in both directions. Lords offered protection, and vassals offered service. The lord-peasant relationship was similar, with a much greater power differential. It was a response to a dangerous world.
Feudal security consolidates power in the hands of the few. Internet companies, like lords before them, act in their own self-interest. They use their relationship with us to increase their profits, sometimes at our expense. They act arbitrarily. They make mistakes. They’re deliberately—and incidentally—changing social norms. Medieval feudalism gave the lords vast powers over the landless peasants; we’re seeing the same thing on the Internet.
It’s not all bad, of course. We, especially those of us who are not technical, like the convenience, redundancy, portability, automation, and shareability of vendor-managed devices. We like cloud backup. We like automatic updates. We like not having to deal with security ourselves. We like that Facebook just works—from any device, anywhere.