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Are We Living Under ‘Technofeudalism’?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Imagine a near future in which Amazon begins bidding for municipal sanitation and sewage contracts. The company has developed sensor-ridden trash cans, trucks, and pipes, such that it can generate valuable data from society’s waste. Localities race to embrace these new utilities and their associated cost savings. In such a situation, we might come to feel like mere vassals of the Bezos empire, pissing out more and more information for his eventual profit.

This is the vision underlying the technofeudalism thesis, which holds that 21st-century capitalism has been superseded by a new economic system overseen by Big Tech. At the core of the argument is the idea that today’s capitalists are not by and large reinvesting their profits to develop new capacities to expand output or increase labor productivity. Rather, an increasingly ludicrous share of growth comes in the form of surveillance platforms with tenuous relations to workers who make widgets for a profit.

The technofeudalist model involves establishing a monopoly position and using sophisticated data extraction to secure it. “Having become indispensable,” writes French economist Cédric Durand in his 2020 book Technoféodalisme: Critique de l’Économie Numérique, “the platforms should be thought of as infrastructure, in the same category as electricity providers, railroads, or telecoms.” Durand has found an English-language outlet in the venerable New Left Review, which has turned its editorial attention to the technofeudalism debate. NLR contributors have spent 2022 going back and forth on the thesis, with Evgeny Morozov taking the position that this is still mere capitalism against Durand, as well as Jodi Dean and Timothy Erik Ström.

Writers have proclaimed the end of capitalism for as long as the system has existed, but the current thesis has found uncommon purchase among serious left-wing thinkers. Could this really be the end of the capitalist mode of production?

I don’t think so.

I see the technofeudalist thesis emerging from the unlikely 2018 hit book by Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, even if she doesn’t use the term. A well-timed critique of Big Tech, the book acquired plaudits from mainstream institutions such as the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Barack Obama. Zuboff’s book offers a model of “behavioral surplus,” in which tech monopolists cultivate users for data, which they refine and use to maintain their position. Her key example is Google, which distinguished itself as a company not so much by designing a better search algorithm but by personalizing its ads. Once that breakthrough was accomplished, information about people became valuable in and of itself, whether it was used for any particular sales or not. Zuboff and her followers in the technofeudalist current believe these companies — principally Google, then Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon — have turned the slippery slope of digital surveillance into a hamster wheel, a new self-perpetuating system of exploitation.

For those of us who now spend our waking hours constantly interacting, whether actively or passively, with electronic devices that record and transmit information directly to the world’s most valuable companies, there’s a resonance to the technofeudalist critique: We do technically spend less time working for our bosses than we do informing on ourselves to tech companies. And no matter whom we work for — or whether we’re employed at all — we’re generating value for Bezos and Zuck. Not only does the tech oligopoly seamlessly record our preferences, habits, and choices, it also uses that data to guide our future choices, rendering us increasingly useful to the tech companies and useless to ourselves. Durand invokes the world of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 dystopian sci-fi film Alphaville, in which a dictatorial sentient computer rules society down to the most personal decisions.

Here is the long-feared world of cybernetic control, in which feedback loops automatically manage the population, no real choices required. “Human replenishment from the failures and triumphs of asserting predictability and exercising over will in the face of natural uncertainty gives way to the blankness of perpetual compliance,” Zuboff wrote in an article for the Journal of Information Technology in 2015, presaging the technofeudalist line. “Rather than enabling new contractual forms, these arrangements describe the rise of a new universal architecture existing somewhere between nature and God that I christen Big Other.”

Readers of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan or his better-selling interpreter, philosopher Slavoj Zizek, might be surprised to read Zuboff, a management consultant, claim credit for this term. In Lacan’s usage, L’Autre can refer to one’s mother, the superego, the analyst, language, the whole symbolic order, and more — it is not unlike Zuboff’s “universal architecture existing somewhere between nature and God.” But in this reformulation, Mark Zuckerberg takes his place next to Mom and God in the pantheon of all-seeing, all-knowing entities.

I have little doubt this is also how Zuckerberg would like to be perceived, but if he’s really so powerful, why is Facebook flailing around trying to get users for its so-called metaverse? According to the technofeudalists we shouldn’t have a choice, and yet almost all of humanity is not strapping monitors on our faces to hang out in Zucklandia. And, for that matter, utility monopolies don’t typically lose 40 percent of their market capitalization over the course of eight months.

Technofeudalists have a bad habit of repeating the industry’s self-promotional puffery. Even though they’re shifting the tone from googly-eyed naïveté to skepticism and even horror, they agree with Silicon Valley that computers and the internetworking thereof has revolutionized the mode of production. It’s true that investors have gambled a lot of money on classically unproductive firms like Facebook, but capitalists still rule. Cost-cutting is a growth sector, driving corporate profits ever higher even as output decelerates. Facebook is much less than what the technofeudalists make it out to be: It’s an advertising platform that wrings pennies out of users’ scrap time — attention that would otherwise go to waste, at least from the capitalist perspective. Behind all the claims about changing the world with technology is a crew of digital ragpickers.

Because their focus changes semiannually, you can date almost any piece of technofeudalist criticism by the breathless industry claims it cites. Surveillance Capitalism is only a few years old, for example, but Zuboff’s concern about Facebook’s plans to pivot to organic videos — a famously failed strategy, founded on the firm’s fibs about user engagement — was already moot by the time of publication. If everything the would-be cryptocurrency sovereigns and metaverse real-estate developers said was true, we might well be ruled by cyberbarons, so it’s a good thing that they’re all totally full of shit. The internet’s true landlords aren’t even tech companies, as researcher Daniel Greene notes in a new paper; they are the real-estate investment trusts that own the vast majority of data centers and the links between them. When you get behind the scenes and down to the cables, Google and Amazon are renters.

The problem with making the Big Other the foundation for a new mode of production is that it’s a fantasy. L’autre n’existe pas, the French say: God is dead, your mother and your analyst are mere human beings, and the symbolic order is a whole bunch of people in a big trench coat. There is no universal architecture between nature and God — and that’s definitely not what Facebook is. Facebook is not a public utility either. Facebook is a once-ubiquitous entertainment business financed by advertising, much like the television show Friends. At a more basic level, Facebook is servers full of degrading code and a bunch of workers getting yelled at by their bosses. If Mark Zuckerberg is a wizard, he’s the of-Oz variety, as he constantly reminds us by tripping over his curtain like a dork.

As a solution to the class struggles animating American society, winning back control of our data via regulation isn’t so different from hoarding newspapers or pissing in jars to keep our waste out of the clutches of Big Tech’s trash-collecting algorithms. Then what? They can eat data scraps, but we can’t. And that’s how you know that this is still capitalism: Tomorrow, we have to go find work.

Are We Living Under ‘Technofeudalism’?