We Peasants of the Metaverse
Ownership, use, and governance on the medieval manor and today
When Elon Musk announced plans to seize control of Twitter, the story was not just for the technology or finance columns. Rather, it provoked all of the hopes and fears, rants and cheers of a political transfer of power—and rightly so, for the bid was nothing if not a political act.
The prospect of Musk imposing private governance on one of the world’s most valuable and densely populated online properties has revealed the true contours of the world we have come to inhabit, in which liberal capitalism’s concepts of property and power are increasingly obsolete. A platform like Twitter resembles less a mere marketplace or publication than a feudal domain: a political-cum-economic territory ripe with opportunity for mutual benefit but also fraught with potential conflict. The inhabitants are less “users” than tenant farmers, the owners less “executives” than lords of the manor.
As we are belatedly coming to realize, such territory must be regulated—by people, not merely by economic laws or algorithms—but we have no idea how or by whom. For all its apparent futurism, the dynamics of the digital domain represent a blast from the past, which we must reckon with again if we are to craft a sustainable model for digital governance in the present. Ideas of a “new feudalism” usually take the form of complaints or accusations about rising inequality and concentrated private power, but the analogy in fact runs much deeper and can help us to better understand and navigate this strange new world.
Unbundling Private Property
The modern idea of private property, after all, is a comparative novelty, bundling together three distinct rights that for most of human history were thoroughly separable and often separated: rights of use, dominion, and disposition. Whatever I own, whether it be a farm or a car, I am apt to take for granted that I, and I alone, (a) make use of it for my personal benefit; (b) am responsible to take care of it, protect it, and regulate others’ access to it; and (c) dispose of it if and when I wish, whether by giving it away, selling it, leaving it to a friend or family member at death, or (if it is not a piece of land) simply throwing it away. But this conception is much purer in theory than in practice; in reality, most of us navigate mixed forms of property ownership on a daily basis. The bank that holds a lien, the utility company that holds a right-of-way, the insurance company or county inspector that imposes safety standards—all of these represent claims that the libertarian may lament as infringements of his personal property rights, but which would be better described as portions of a complex property right shared among multiple stakeholders.
In the premodern world, theory and practice were more closely aligned, and both law and custom openly recognized that different parties could—and usually did—hold different forms of property right in one and the same piece of the world. Although capable of dizzyingly diverse expressions of labyrinthine complexity, the basic model of medieval feudalism went something like this.
Every kingdom consisted of many manors, large and small, each the domain of a lord (often an absentee one), inhabited and worked upon by tenants. The word “tenant” is confusing today, bringing to mind a rental, often short-term and usually governed by an explicit contract, based on an exchange of money and enforced by a third party—the impersonal modern state. Feudal tenants usually had a much more intimate connection to the land upon which they lived and worked. Their rights to it (usually governed by custom rather than contract) were varied, numerous, and often lifelong if not intergenerational. They enjoyed, in short, use rights (or “usufruct” rights to use the technical term) over the land, mixing their labor with it and enjoying its fruits.
In the premodern world, theory and practice were more closely aligned, and both law and custom openly recognized that different parties could—and usually did—hold different forms of property right in one and the same piece of the world.
Their lords, however, had dominium or “lordship” over the manor—guarding and caring for it, policing its boundaries, and enjoying some discretion to regulate the various use rights of tenants. Just as a good owner takes good care of his property, a good lord rendered real service to his tenants, and they repaid him in turn—rarely with monetary rents, in the way of a modern renter, but more often with a portion of their produce or else with a portion of their time and labor, especially in military service.
Typically, though, the lord did not have the right of disposition. He was a steward, rather than an owner in the full modern sense, holding the domain from the Crown, which was considered immortal. Only with the Crown’s permission could he add to or subtract from the lands that belonged properly to his particular dukedom or earldom, only to his legal heir could he pass them on.
Several aspects of this ancient model shed light on the digital world’s immense frontiers, but the idea of dominion over people in particular demands careful attention. In the modern capitalistic theory of property, dominion is exercised only over things, not over people. Every man is free, subject only to the rule of law administered by an impartial state. To the extent that he contracts with an employer, he may find that for the duration of the workday, his health, safety, personal life, and relations with his coworkers are his boss’s business, but once he clocks out, he is his own master once again, subject only to the constraints of the public laws, enforced by the police and the courts. The factory or farm, on the other hand, remains under the owner’s control and jurisdiction 24/7.
The feudal order—which, in some form or other broadly prevailed in nearly all premodern societies—was quite different. Each domain encompassed not only a parcel of land, but also a community of long-term tenants holding use-rights over pieces of the larger property. The lord of the manor, therefore, was obliged to exercise dominion over his users; his relation to them was not merely economic but political.
In fact, it is no coincidence that in medieval political thought, the word dominium served as the fundamental concept not merely for thinking about property but for thinking about political rule, and debates about the origins of political order. To own was to rule, and to rule was to own—at least in the sense of the partial right of dominion. Most feudal lords were responsible not merely for fielding personal armies from their tenants, but also for administering personal justice through their manorial courts. In such societies, political power tended to be thoroughly decentralized, for better or for worse, with each lord charged with exercising various forms of jurisdiction within the domain that he administered.
Locke’s great theoretical achievement was to sever decisively the connection between political and proprietary dominium, a shift slowly underway in England since the 12th century, and to reconstruct ownership on the new model of the bundled property right—dominion, use, and disposition all together. In France, where the transition was much slower, it was the great aim of the Revolution to replace the older notion of feudal ownership with the newer capitalist concept, stripping lords of any powers not derived from and enforceable by impersonal and formally egalitarian contracts. Next to this true revolution the mere beheading of a monarch was a comparatively small matter.
The User as Peasant
All very interesting, no doubt, but what does any of this have to do with the Twittersphere and the growing agitation about “Big Tech”? Let us begin with ubiquitous but undertheorized idea of the “user.”
Traditional market theory struggles with the phenomenon of the user. Notwithstanding a brief period in the 1990s when digital gatekeepers like AOL charged for access to “walled gardens” within the Internet’s vast new terrain, major digital networks are typically accessible for free to ordinary users. This is particularly and startlingly true of social media platforms, which make immense capital investments, provide unprecedented privileges and services, and charge not a nickel. Departing so sharply from our accustomed relationship to private businesses (and increasingly to government) as customers, this business model can be exhilarating, confounding, and alarming. Whatever we are all doing, it does not comport with the rules of old-fashioned capitalism.
An economic arrangement may, after all, be both exploitative and mutually beneficial at the same time, as medieval feudalism often was, and as every relationship of unequals may be in some measure.
Observing that “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” a rising chorus of critics such as Shoshana Zuboff have coined the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the new framework. In this model, charges Zuboff, platform users are more like unpaid laborers—or more alarmingly, like raw materials—from whom tech companies extract the precious asset of “behavioral surplus.” These companies sell their true customers, advertisers, the data on user browsing and posting habits, likes and dislikes, from a passive and pliable audience. Zuboff’s analysis is persuasive and illuminating, and I have no desire to deny the exploitative dimension of Big Tech and its relationship to its users.
However, there is more to be said. An economic arrangement may, after all, be both exploitative and mutually beneficial at the same time, as medieval feudalism often was, and as every relationship of unequals may be in some measure.
Twitter provides its users with broad, varied, and often highly productive use rights. Whereas the basic and most indispensable resource for the premodern peasant was food, in our more privileged age we can take this for granted; it is attention that we crave above all. In some cases, this is simply crass garden-variety vanity. But in our age of expressive individualism, each of us feels that we have something worthwhile to say, some truth to communicate or beauty to create, and all of this ever-proliferating speech is useless without someone to attend to it—or better yet, 10,000 someones.
Like the medieval peasant whose physical survival demanded a patch of ground he could call his own and cultivate, most of us are desperate for online spaces in which to cultivate our own personae, present curated snapshots of our lives, and promote our opinions and interests. If you want attention and connection in the digital world, you may be able to scrabble out a living with a handful of followers in the rocky soil of the unclaimed hinterlands, such as a self-hosted blog, but if you want prime real estate, you’ll need to settle on the estate of some dominus or other. It is this that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest offer us—a digital location of our own to use in the fullest sense of the word, a use that is often productive and life-giving to ourselves and those around us.
Protecting the Digital Domain
Concern about governance of online platforms has centered on the dissemination of misleading information and the censorship of political speech, but this is far too narrow. Indeed, the often-invoked metaphor of the “public square,” like the term “feudalism,” is more illuminating than most have realized. After all, the public square of yore was not merely (or even primarily) a place for public debate. It was a great, crass, chaotic throng of merchants hawking their wares, exhibitionists performing before an ephemeral audience, and revolutionaries handing out literature. Often enough, all these were swept aside so it could play host to angry lynch mobs and public burnings. In all these ways too, Twitter is a medieval throwback, a reminder of a time when each feudal domain often had its own town square, where the lord kept tabs on the markets, fairs, and heretics.
As the references to mobs and heretics suggest, pre-modern and digital feudalism both emphasize the provision of protection. The Internet, after all, is a dangerous place, especially for the preciously fragile psyches of many of its 21st-century denizens. There are the digital highwaymen—hackers and identity thieves—to contend with, and also the digital ruffians and drunken brawlers—the trolls and character assassins that can make any online user’s life miserable. More darkly, there are the digital pimps and rapists that occupy more bandwidth than any other demographic of the online world, purveying pornography to the consenting and unconsenting alike. And of course, alongside these very real threats are the ones that we get really upset about: offensive ideas, misinformation, “hate speech,” “microaggressions.”
After all, the public square of yore was not merely (or even primarily) a place for public debate. It was a great, crass, chaotic throng of merchants hawking their wares, exhibitionists performing before an ephemeral audience, and revolutionaries handing out literature.
We crave protection from these dangers real and imagined, and the platforms do their best to give it to us—often crowdsourcing much of their enforcement, in the spirit of feudal tenants mobilized to ward off any threats to the manor. Modern individualists that we are, we chafe at any restraint. We curse bitterly at the their content moderation, or any such policing of their domains—rarely pausing to thank them for quietly removing images of rape or videos of kittens being tortured. But if the platform can take down some Russian bot’s phishing scam, why not your carefully reasoned essay on inconsistent vote totals in Wisconsin?
Unavoidably, as on the medieval manor, dominion over digital property requires dominion over its denizens. Once property has been “unbundled” and rights of dominion separated from rights of use, as occurs for platforms and their users, the long-dormant political dimension of property ownership, so self-evident to our premodern forebears, inevitably returns. Of course, many private companies enforce some sort of order on their premises. Walmart employs many security guards; but they can only ask you to leave, not take your shirt or mute your voice. For Twitter, the necessity of exercising some of the jurisdiction that once attached to property ownership is far greater, and the stakes much higher.
The users of a digital domain such as Twitter, after all, enjoy a much more intimate relationship to the platform than do customers of a typical business. For all their interest in acquiring low-cost goods, shoppers have little further stake in their local Walmart store. Their attachment to the space is relatively ephemeral and thus their interactions with one another rarely need policing; in the rare exception, if a customer is expelled for unruly behavior, he will probably take his business elsewhere with little loss. Through his digital tenancy, by contrast, the social media user experiences his little parcel of the platform as something owned—albeit within a shared and overlapping quasi-public space to which he is connected at all times and in all places. The platforms depend heavily on this perception—Facebook’s mission statement begins, “give people the power to build community,” not “induce people to post photos that we can place advertisements next to.” And while the disgruntled customer or employees can go elsewhere, the disgruntled Twitter user has few alternatives; the advice to “make your own Twitter” faces obstacles of natural monopoly similar in many ways to “make your own arable land.”
As a locus of intimate belonging and a space of shared productive ownership from which one cannot easily vote with one’s feet, Twitter is more closely analogous to a small polity than to a capitalist business as we have come to think of it, and must be governed accordingly. The goods of a domain like Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube are as unimaginable without censorship as the goods of the medieval manor are without a castle and a band of retainers.
The problem, then, is not that social media companies exercise a kind of political authority over their digital tenantry; it is that they have thought so little about how to cultivate the legitimacy necessary to sustain such authority. Big Tech founders and CEOs are famous for a distinctive worldview that regards everything as an engineering problem and fails constantly to acknowledge or account for human factors. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have their “manorial courts,” but these consist mainly of algorithms and then fall back on self-appointed juridical content review employees and boards to decide questions ranging from how much to allow nursing mothers to share about breastfeeding to whether the President of the United States is guilty of “inciting violence.”
A Crisis of Legitimacy
While operating on a remarkably medieval model, the tech giants have adopted the very worst features of the modern centralized state as their model for governance. Algorithms boost, suppress, or remove content based on obscure and ever-changing criteria, moderators hide behind impenetrable veils, and those who feel they’ve been treated unjustly have little or no recourse. Such abstract systems, as Michael J. Mazaar has recently written in American Affairs, inevitably undermine trust and their own legitimacy.
Legitimacy, after all, requires visibility. Authority is inherently mysterious, its workings hidden to some extent from prying eyes, but if it is not to breed fear and distrust, it must also be made visible. Historically, monarchies endured in part because of the monarch’s ability to visibly and vividly represent the commonwealth in his own person—just as the feudal lord not only ruled but symbolically represented his whole domain.
Legitimacy, after all, requires visibility. Authority is inherently mysterious, its workings hidden to some extent from prying eyes, but if it is not to breed fear and distrust, it must also be made visible.
Such visible unity also helps ensure accountability. The medieval feudal domain was rife with opportunities for oppression, but at least it wasn’t hard to tell who was oppressing you—he was liable, after all, to be riding past you on a big white horse and helping himself to some of your hard-won produce. Modern democracies, and especially the American system with its elaborate checks and balances, reduce the opportunities for oppression, but have the drawback of making it very difficult to identify its source. Sometimes, in fact, a bureaucratic structure can manage to be grossly oppressive even if staffed exclusively by upstanding, well-intentioned public servants. And even if it is not oppressive, the mere fact of its opacity, as Mazaar notes, is liable to intensify the sense that it is being arbitrary and discriminatory.
This phenomenon helps explain the wave of enthusiasm greeting Elon Musk as he rides into town. To be sure, some harbor the naïve illusion that he will inaugurate a utopian era of freedom and tranquility on the platform. But most intuitively recognize that no social media platform can survive without content moderation any more than a medieval manor can survive without a band of stout retainers. It is still refreshing to put a face on this amorphous regime, to have at last a recognized and accountable lord of this domain. Musk, in short, promises to bring the personal dimension back to the politics of this ultra-modern yet pre-modern space. Will he govern his dominion well? Perhaps, perhaps not; but at least if he doesn’t, Twitter users will know whom to blame.
The analogy falters, of course, in an important way: Musk will not face accountability like a medieval baron. The lord of the manor rarely owned it outright in the sense that we think of ownership. Not only did he divide his rights of dominion with the use-rights of the tenants, but he was constrained also by the Crown’s higher rights of disposition. An earl or duke who was too brazen in exploiting his peasants, or too inept in his governance, could conceivably lose his domain and his title—at least in times and places where the central monarchy was strong and effective. When it was not, as for instance during the reign of Henry VI, feudal barons could effectively run amok, defying laws with impunity and even making and unmaking monarchs. To the extent that today’s mega-billionaires and digital lords command resources rivaling those of ailing national governments, there is grave risk that they will help reproduce the worst effects of medieval feudalism: violence, lawlessness, and chronic political instability.
Reining in the New Warrior Barons
What then is the solution? One conclusion from this extended historical excursus might be that we should do for the digital economy what the modern nation-state did for the landed economy of Europe: revoke the rights of feudal barons, assume all powers of governance into the public instruments of the centralized state, and establish justice through consolidated regimes of national legal systems and courts. If this process helped bring peace, security, and prosperity to the European world in the 17th century, then perhaps it is high time to repeat it in the 21st, bringing law and order to the Wild West of the digital landscape.
On this account, the best answer to the conundrum posed by social media platforms would be to recognize the public interests at stake and subject them wholly to the (hopefully) impartial and (hopefully) democratically accountable supervision of the state. Practically speaking, this might mean empowering entities such as the FCC, FTC, and Department of Homeland Security to comprehensively regulate online platforms, establishing uniform rules of appropriate use, prosecuting offenders, and empowering the courts to afford just as much redress for harms suffered in the virtual world as they currently do for harms suffered in the physical world. If such regulation proves impossible to square with the profit motives of social media companies, so be it. Doing the job properly will just require vast efforts of expropriation, as it did in the times of the Tudor monarchs in England and the Jacobins in revolutionary France.
If this process helped bring peace, security, and prosperity to the European world in the 17th century, then perhaps it is high time to repeat it in the 21st, bringing law and order to the Wild West of the digital landscape.
Beyond a handful of bureaucrats, this solution is unlikely to garner much support. Nor, given the crisis of legitimacy facing the increasingly abstract modern, is it likely to solve many of the fundamental problems. But if the analysis of this essay is correct, more modest regulatory reforms under discussion among politicians and policy wonks—Section 230 amendments, common carrier rules, and antitrust action—are unlikely to address the root issue. Such proposals continue to treat social media as essentially just another industry for modern private business, with more than the usual number of friction points with the public interest. If the platforms represent an earlier era of social and economic organization, the challenges they pose will not be solved with mere tinkering.
A more promising path for progress would begin with the recollection that transition from medieval to modern did not happen in one fell swoop—or even many fell swoops. Indeed, relics of the medieval world still underlie our legal and economic system today. Consider the public corporation, a legal entity distinct from the individuals who manage it, much as the medieval domain was an entity distinct from the individual lords who might administer it. The intermediate stage of development between the two was the early mercantile company, a time-limited economic-cum-political entity created by charter from the Crown, granting monopoly powers over a given territory or certain forms of activity therein. Mercantile companies were frequently chartered, both in Europe and in the early United States for more limited ends, such as the building and maintenance of a canal.
The most famous example of the institution, however, was the East India Company, a semi-private corporation that governed much of the Indian subcontinent as an economic and political fiefdom not that dissimilar from its medieval antecedents, though on a far larger scale. (At its peak, it fielded a private army of 260,000.) This situation was, of course, ripe for abuse, but the Company’s dependence on the Crown meant that it was not immune from accountability. Before he made a name for himself opposing the French Revolution, the great Edmund Burke was best known for his crusade to revoke the charter of the East India Company after its abuses became a matter of public scandal.
Perhaps this early-modern institution could offer some insight on solving a pre-modern problem? Eventually, governments grew tired of the hard work of ensuring that chartered companies operated in the public interest, and began to grant general incorporation charters, by which joint-stock companies could enjoy all the privileges of limited liability but with none of the older responsibilities or constraints. But the heyday of mercantile companies was a period in which vast new tracts of previously unknown territory were being discovered and settled, perhaps the nearest historical analogue for the creation ex nihilo of a vast domain of digital real estate. What if we were to recognize both that social media platforms are best run on a model of subsidiarity, under private governance, and that they must constantly justify their existence in terms of the public interest?
The government might issue a ten-year charter to a Twitter or Facebook to operate as just the kind of monopoly it is. Barons like Musk could purchase these licenses and enjoy the profits over their periods of ownership, but they would also accept the risk of revocation for dereliction of duty and face an impending application for renewal. Alternatively, or in addition, charters might dictate different governing structures, as in the English charters establishing the American colonies. Shareholders could retain their claim to the residual profits of a platform, but users could elect the board of directors.
One might raise plenty of objections to such attempts to turn back the clock to an earlier era of corporate governance—certainly, neither is a fully formed proposal. But the point underscored by each is that, once we recognize that ownership of these platforms and dominion over their users is inseparably political as well as economic, many new and constructive models of reform emerge. We cannot make sense of economic forms in the current century simply by applying the rules of the last. No, the brave new world we have been sailing blindly into turns out to contain more than a shadow of the gallant old world, and we would be wise to dust off some long-neglected tools for navigating it.