Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

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DanielaWeerasingheFirstPaper 4 - 10 May 2022 - Main.EbenMoglen
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Social Animals VS Digital Feudalists

-- By DanielaWeerasinghe - 15 April 2022

My previous essay “Freedom of Thought VS Democracy” analyzed and depicted the broken link between human’s capacity to think autonomously and to contribute to a democratic society, by reason of the former’s growing deterioration. I advanced the argument that we emerged into a “machine-directed society” “thanks to” having been/being “other-directed”, i.e., in need of assurance that one is emotionally in tune with others; willing to accommodate others for their endorsement (David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd).

This paper aims to further develop this argumentation by way of analyzing, understanding, and suggesting ways to address the key forces behind our addictive usage of social media on smart devices (i.e., our social nature, peer pressure, anxiety, and risk underestimation).

Social Nature

I take as a starting point the empirically supported assertion that human beings are a ‘social species that relies on cooperation to survive’ (The Cooperative Human, Nature Human Behavior Journal 2 427-428 (2018)). We fundamentally value family, friendship, and romantic relationships. That is, we cherish and feel a need for companionship. As a natural corollary thereof, we crave belonging to a community and thus perpetually seek out connectivity. And digital feudalists have been quick to capitalize on our social character: unlike societies before the 19th century, where meetings were organized orally or via handwritten letters and that took place in person, today everything happens digitally. It used to be a privilege to meet friends on certain days and a rarity to meet people from other cities or countries. Never has mankind been afforded the opportunity and indeed luxury to connect with everyone, at all times, everywhere, and at little or no cost as in today’s digital age. It is thus of no surprise that our social inclination has let us become overstimulated by and addicted to those devices that enable perceptively fulsome connection.

Social Class

Having the latest iPhone and MacBook? is perceived a must, if one considers oneself part of a certain social elite. The reasoning goes that those paying thousands of dollars for an Apple smart device are richer and cooler than those buying cheaper, non-Apple devices. After all, if you can afford it, why wouldn’t you opt for the beautifully designed Apple gadgets like all your peers?


Eben Moglen argues that convenience as a self-reported experience means the surrender of an anxiety to the machine (i.e., Apple, Facebok, Google etc.): this, the software entity we built to maximize engagement with surveillance capitalism, ‘rewards’ us by returning to us new and different anxieties so that the anxiety-relief of convenience actually never relieves any anxiety, just transforming one into another. The pandemic-induced physical isolation in the past two years has amplified various anxieties and hence our online behavior.

Smart devices have given us a false sense of belonging and have replaced our inherent urge to be connected with people, with devices. We feel satisfied with a zoom call or Whatsapp chat and long-distance relationships with family and friends are the norm. Indeed, we feel ‘FOMO’ (i.e., the fear of missing out) if we were offline for a few moments, possibly even more so than if we were to miss a physical meeting. The result is utter social depletion and inertia towards remedying the former.

Underestimation of Risk

Finally and related to the previous points, smart devices give us a false sense of safety. That is, we are inclined to regard smart devices as innocent, great inventions that enable us to connect with our friends and family whenever we desire to and to search the web anonymously. And since, at least in my case, most if not all my peers possess an iPhone and MacBook? , I do not tend to question the power that Apple has amassed over us. And despite now knowing that Apple & Co track my every digital move in one way or another -even if I turned on AdBlock? and TrackMeNot? -, I continue to use their devices and services. Why? Because I do not feel sufficiently threatened by them.

Swapping my iPhone with a non-Apple-designed device -presently- seems equivalent with compromising between French fries and a salad e.g., my cravings will not be fully satisfied with the latter, when it is the former that I want – even if knowing that the former is not good for my health. However, unlike our addiction to fatty and sugary food, which can be balanced out by also eating healthy food, our addiction to smart devices seems to require a more profound remedy.

Reflecting on how to remedy our social media addiction

The bottom line is that Apple, Facebook, Google & Co deliberately designed their devices and platforms to capitalize on human nature’s social predilection and vulnerabilities. I do not intend to argue that it is mankind’s fault that we have become victims of capitalism surveillance by reason of us being us e.g., social, human, and vulnerable; nor do I try to assert that mankind dictated how technology has unfolded. On the contrary, it is only a handful of people that have been dictating technology’s details for all of us. And this is THE problem. Instead of fighting our social nature, we need to fight the digital feudalists and end their reign over our online behavior. Acknowledging as well as acting on the risks of using the services of digital feudalists (e.g., by engaging with technology and learning about proxy browsing, open-source software, Punkt mobile phones) and withstanding peer pressure to buy Apple products mark a meaningful start. Taking the step to seek alternatives to their services and devices is next.

In conclusion, even if non-surveilling, non-proprietary, and non-manipulative software are the default, it likely remains the case that we feel hooked on social media, simply due to our entrenched need to connect with people. The difference however is significant, for we would then connect with each other, on our own terms and conditions.

This is a thoughtful revision, reconceived and much improved. I think that the combination of "digital feudalism" and "surveillance capitalism" is a little confusing. The categories of the dotCommunist Manifesto are strictly those of the originating co-authors: the goal was to update their analysis without fracturing it. That allowed, for example, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to adopt the text as a policy statement. The maintenance of orthodoxy may appear only a game if we are not ourselves "disciplined" thinkers. But otherwise (as Shoshana Zuboff shows) you need quite a few pages to reestablish what the metaphors actually mean, rather than coincidentally imply.

I think the best next step here would be an exacting sentence edit. Sentences that aren't directly advancing the work of the paragraph should go. References to "this paper" are, if you please, inherently extraneous: don't tell us what the paper does, just do it. The space gained can be used to recharacterize the political economy of the platforms. I commend again to your attention the possibility that they are not separate in fact, but are organs of a single software organism, misdescribed as a "business model."

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Revision 4r4 - 10 May 2022 - 12:38:38 - EbenMoglen
Revision 3r3 - 15 Apr 2022 - 23:02:19 - DanielaWeerasinghe
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