Mobile technology turning humans into digital serfs

By Emily Walshe

The Christian Science Monitor
April 18, 2011

A Ugandan farmer transfers cash while standing in his field. An American teen ‘checks in' at a smoothie cafe, alerting his social network. An Icelandic fisherman "asks" the market what to fish for, locates the shoal, and plots his course against a predicted tide before heading out to sea. At any given moment, people from all walks of life are using mobile technology to beam up information and pull down influence.

What do these exchanges have in common? Each reflects a radical shift in how we relate to the world around us.

This shift is made possible by technological leaps—in phones, satellites, and chips—that are doing more than making our access to information faster and our influence more pervasive. They are essentially dematerializing all forms of capital into cloud-based commodities. It sounds so futuristic, but the reality is feudal: Our money, our friends, our whereabouts, even our thoughts and desires, are being siphoned into corporate servers, turning us into digital serfs.

"Rule the air", touts one wireless carrier, but this tag line is terribly elusive. Virtual castles in the sky—built on the brick and mortar of user-generated content—stand protected behind a moat of tethering data plans and Wi-Fi roaming fees.

In a global sense, the digital divide is over. We're no longer separated by space and time. From an economic standpoint, of course, this is indisputably beneficial. Since knowledge is power, the rise of universal connectivity and information markets is vastly expanding human capacity for creating wealth. Yet from a values standpoint, it is deeply troubling. Because at the heart of these technologies lies a perilous challenge to human freedom itself: Can you still be the author of your own life?

Virtually unnoticed, the sovereign rights of man are being eroded by the conjunction of cloud-computing technologies and crowd-sourcing philosophies. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are central to our identity and well-being, but they're being dragged under the bus of innovation. Here's how: 

The right to life is based on the idea that life is the standard of moral value. Its aim is to protect the individual's ability to take every action necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of his or her life. Implicit in this right—always—is the right to property. What happens, then, in this era where access trumps ownership?


Cloud computing is internet-based computing, where shared information is provided to users on demand, like electricity. These user-centric, "pay as you go, use only what you need" systems are affecting nearly every facet of life. In the clouds, we are forever "clients" utilizing distant servers to borrow and invest in intangible capital.

Flickr, Bebo, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook: Where does all our stuff sit? It is no longer tucked away in albums or lining the shelves of our libraries, but with privately owned companies that can regulate it however they like. Our conversations, to—once reserved for the dinner table or the bedroom, boardroom, or classroom—now reside outside ourselves, our homes, and our dominion, in the air above us.

At first glance, the cloud promises equal access to all—the great leveler of men and nations. But the substance of the cloud is non-residential, ephemeral, and beyond any single user's control. As such, it does equalize us—under the yoke of corporate masters who control the cloud.

We buy and sell from this invisible marketplace so swiftly that we're barely conscious of what we're giving up in gaining speed. As we zip through license agreements, we accept the restrictions imposed on our autonomy and are bound, in a sense, to labor upon the land of our lords. This can have profound effects on human freedom.

And freedom is perhaps the most fundamental issue of the digital age. The right to liberty protects the individual's ability to think and to act on his own judgment, either rightly or wrongly. But this freedom is something achieved, not given; and it is predicated on the ability to think critically, independent of some mechanical thingamajig.

Can we be free when our encounters with the media are dominated by an engineered response? Google's Instant, for example, allows you to scan results as you type your question—apportioning answers according to its own algorithm's relevancy ranking.  The result? Google "Martin Luther King" and white supremacist David Duke's nasty site pops up third.

Can we be free in a culture where information is exponentially propagated and propagandized? If you, and 10,000 others in proximity of your home, Google "flu symptoms," this intelligence is flagged and classified at their headquarters well before the National Institutes of Health have a clue. Facebook ads can figure out which users are gay, and cellphone companies retain animated maps of your calls, texts, and locations at any given time in your contract. 



Is freedom possible with omnipotent eyes in the sky? How can it be when satellites, global positioning services, and geolocation devices increasingly direct and record our experience?

The right to pursue happiness protects our individual ability to live for our own sake, rather than for the sake of society. A free mind does not work under compulsion; it does not subordinate its grasp of reality to another, or sacrifice its view of the truth to public opinion. Wiki-worlds, built around a "crowd sourcing" philosophy, have led to social constructions of truth that challenge established notions of expertise and ascendancy. When does public consensus become a fact? If enough of us agree that something is true, does that make it so? In a cacophony of equal voices, when does one idea ascend above all others? To what extent does this have to do with money?

Both cloud and crowd are marketed as "empowering," but our experience with smart phones and third-party apps suggests that this empowerment quickly becomes dependence, then subservience.  When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton heralded the political and social forces of a "free, open, and secure Internet" in the wake of Egypt's uprising, she missed the full picture. Freedom is illusory in this context. Access providers ultimately control our ability to freely assemble.

Although information in the clouds appears to be free, make no mistake; it is not a public good. It is bought and sold, stored and delivered through private, proprietary, and profitable enterprise.

Our forefathers established the perfect launching pad for free enterprise and technological growth. So here we are in the high-tech heavens, unaware that our orbit is escaping the safeguarding gravity of our rights. That doesn't mean we must give up innovation. We can still embrace technological automatism without losing our humanity, if we cultivate a clear understanding of the human capital we wish to preserve.

By consciously expressing more dominion over our lives (and insisting that access providers hold to this ideal), we can transcend our technologies to ensure that the elements of life that sustain our humanity—our freedoms, our realities, our present moments, and predictive futures—will not vanish in the clouds.

Emily Walshe is a librarian and professor at Long Island University in New York.