THR Web Features   /   January 12, 2021

Our Manorial Elite

Call them warlords or the manorial elite, our massive transnational tech companies will protect us only when they believe it is in their interest to do so.

Alan Jacobs

( Palmse manor house in Estonia. Abrget47j via Wikimedia Commons.)

My first and ongoing feeling when I hear that Donald Trump has been banned from Twitter and Facebook and other social media is relief. I have the same feeling when I see Apple and Google and Amazon putting the screws to Parler, which was created to be a home for conspiracy theorists, fantasists, liars, and sowers of hatred.

But then I think of this comment from a recent essay by Cory Doctorow: “The one entity Facebook will never, ever protect you from is Facebook.” We need to face quite clearly the fact that these recent events serve to consolidate the power of the tech giants—tech giants who quite literally have no principles to guide them other than self-interest, though they might occasionally discover reasons to act on our behalf. This is one element of the condition that the technologist Bruce Schneier calls feudal security.” Doctorow explains:

Here in the 21st century, we are beset by all manner of digital bandits, from identity thieves, to stalkers, to corporate and government spies, to harassers. There is no way for us to defend ourselves: even skilled technologists who administer their own networked services are no match for the bandits. To keep bandits out, you have to be perfect and perfectly vigilant, and never make a single mistake. For the bandits to get you, they need merely find a single mistake that you’ve made.

To be safe, then, you have to ally yourself with a warlord. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and a few others have built massive fortresses bristling with defenses, whose parapets are stalked by the most ferocious cybermercenaries money can buy, and they will defend you from every attacker—except for their employers. If the warlord turns on you, you’re defenseless.

In this moment of crisis, our techno-feudal bosses are protecting us not from bandits trying to steal our credit card numbers and personal data but rather a different class of bandit: those who want to be bosses themselves—or else just watch the world burn. Which means we need the warlords more then ever.

Doctorow suggests a refinement to Schneier’s formulation:

Schneier calls this “Feudal Security,” but as the medievalist Stephen Morillo wrote to me, the correct term for this is probably “Manorial Security”—while feudalism was based on land-grants to aristocrats who promised armed soldiers in return, manorialism referred to a system in which an elite owned all the property and the rest of the world had to work on that property on terms that the local lord set.

After all, the thing that gives tech companies the power to overrule your choices on your computers and devices is that they’re not really yours. Thanks to onerous licensing terms and bizarre retrofits to copyright and patent law, the only entities who can truly be said to “own” anything are aristocratic corporations, who may have to capitulate to the king, but owe no fealty to us, the peasants.

And the way the manorial elite are now behaving pleases the sovereign very much—if by “the sovereign” we mean the political party that is about to control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, plus what we might call its Court: the major media companies who have been unwavering supporters of that sovereign and might even be said to be part of its governance. (See Althusser here on ideological state apparatuses.) It is difficult to imagine the sovereign doing anything to constrain the power of a manorial elite that serves its purposes so well.

Few today will worry much about this situation, because so many of us are, as I am, relieved by what feels like the excision of a tumor in the body politic. But as Will Oremus has recently written, “the dominant platforms are quite literally making up the rules of online speech as they go along…. There’s just one golden rule of content moderation that every platform follows: If a policy becomes too controversial, change it.” Call them warlords or the manorial elite, our massive transnational tech companies will protect us only when they believe it is in their interest to do so; and they will never offer us any protection from their own ever-increasing, ever-more-intrusive power.