The Road to Digital Serfdom

The giants of the Internet – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – are building toward a great war. The battle for our digital selves has just begun, but it may already be lost. They want our files, our thoughts, our dollars, and ultimately, our identities.

While the royals prepare for battle, we’re becoming mired in a state of digital serfdom, unable to “own” anything in the traditional sense, instead being granted a limited license to the books we read, the music we listen to, the photos we take, the words we write, and often even the files we create.

If I want to read digital books, I have to buy into Amazon’s kingdom. If I want to watch movies, I have to buy into Apple’s iTunes world. These technological advances have not been agnostic to your ability to choose, nor are they harmless to the competition we value so much as a society.

By bypassing traditional publishers in software and books, Apple and Amazon are opening up the market to new players and individuals, which is something we should celebrate. But in doing so, they’ve significantly weakened the negotiating position of everyone in the market. After all, Joe Coder can’t negotiate a better rate in the App Store, and Tracy Author can’t negotiate a better rate on Amazon. So while they have access to the market, they are passive subjects to the terms dictated by Amazon and Apple.

But open technologies and open markets don’t have the same adoption rate as their closed peers. You can sell on the Google Play store, but it’s harder to make money than on the Apple store, so accept their terms. You can sell a digital book independently, but you’ll probably make more on Amazon, so accept their terms.

For consumers, the situation is worse. Using closed technologies creates enormous switching costs that most consumers won’t bear, and eliminates the secondary market that often exists for physical goods. Do you want a Barnes and Noble Nook? Say goodbye to the years books you’ve “purchased” on Kindle, or be prepared to repurchase them from B&N. Want to try Amazon Instant Video? Don’t try it on your Apple TV, and don’t expect to take your iTunes video library with you.

Remember when you’d sell your old DVDs, books, and software at a garage or stoop sale? Try doing that with a Kindle book. No, seriously. Try transferring your license to read that book to a third party. You can’t. Try it with a movie from iTunes. Also impossible. Because you don’t own anything physical, that content has no value beyond what you derive from it. The photos you uploaded to Facebook/Instagram? Hope you made another copy, because that low fidelity version is all they keep, and it’s a royal pain to download a copy for yourself.

I’m an avid user of all the technologies mentioned above, and I think that “the cloud” has served to advance our lives in a lot of ways. But it didn’t come without drawbacks, and those drawbacks may start to outweigh the benefits.

Do you want your life of consumption and creation to be limited by the business prerogatives of the giants who control the Internet?

Me either. So what can we do about it?

3 thoughts on “The Road to Digital Serfdom

  1. Well said. Yesterday, I finished an audiobook that I really enjoyed, and I found myself wistful that I couldn’t put it on the shelf and know it was there, like an old friend. Instead, I listened to the audiobook again. As much as I enjoy the instant access of digital downloads, I’ll continue to buy some books in print… so I can dog-ear them, write in the margins, flip backwards and forwards, keep them and loan them out. Unfortunately, in New Zealand, that’s an especially expensive habit. Oh, well– nothing’s perfect.


  2. Right – nothing’s perfect, BUT points like this in history – where companies are innovating so quickly and to their advantage – are often the only opportunity we have to shape how that technology will get used and how it integrates with our society.

    (That said, I bought a new book on my Kindle last night)


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