Digital Serfs or Service?

Tim Berners-Lee

The Economist magazine recently published a short essay questioning whether we are all on the road to becoming serfs — digital serfs. The latest trends in consumer technology are converging toward inter-connected “life tracking” devices and applications. You can already document most aspects of your daily life from conversations to activities. One step further is the promise of cloud computing, which creates an easier way to store, deliver and consume our needs and wants.

Is it right to have our heads up in the clouds? After all, if Aristophanes could make us understand (and laugh at) the dangers of his culture’s popular and dominant sophistry (see The Clouds), shouldn’t we be skeptical of our future life in a cloud, especially one controlled by a few companies?

Will we rely on too few companies to integrate our life in digits? Will we be digital serfs to the new regimes of Facebook, Google, Twitter and a few others? In the near future, will choosing between them be more like choosing a nationality rather than just a team? Will we need digital passports to travel from one online nation to another?

And, it’s not just the companies. As Tim Berners-Lee, the Web founder, recently wrote in a “Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality” in Scientific American, “Governments — totalitarian and democratic alike — are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.” And they can rely on the networks we build and populate. After the street protests in Iran last year, the government used social media to circulate pictures of the protesters to encourage the public to identify the faces. Surely, it is too many governments’ dream to be able to track every citizen’s social network, communication, habits, and activity.

The good news is that the very mechanisms used for corporate or government control are the same ones we can use to shine light on the control. In other words, as Berners-Lee stresses, the genuine power lies with individual action and a communal understanding of service:

Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.

Serve to create: that’s a good slogan for any digital life.

- Bill Reichblum

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3 Responses to “Digital Serfs or Service?”

  1. Tweets that mention KadmusArts – where culture speaks » Blog Archive » Digital Serfs or Service? --
    December 1st, 2010 17:26

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bill Reichblum, Dr. Ashfaq Ishaq. Dr. Ashfaq Ishaq said: Digital Serfs or Service?: The Economist magazine recently published a short essay questioning whether we are al… [...]

  2. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » Web of Moguls?
    December 2nd, 2010 01:13

    [...] CBC Digital Serfs or Service? [...]

  3. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » “Web Fundamentally Controllable”
    December 5th, 2010 01:12

    [...] New York Times Digital Serfs or Service? [...]

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