About 15 years ago, our neighborhood was engaged in a huge fight against a developer. He came from New York City, bought a large swath of undeveloped land in our suburban neighborhood, and proposed to build a subdivision of rather ritzy houses here in Western Massachusetts. The undeveloped land was beautiful — with walking paths, a bubbling brook, deer and even moose, and more.
Here’s the problem: We (the neighborhood) didn’t own the land. He did. An attempt to raise funds from our middle class neighborhood as a way to counteroffer to buy the land for protection failed.
In the end, the woods were cleared and decimated (a process still underway today) — I still get sad with memories of the old woods as we walk through the subdivision loop where the homes are slowly being built and sold and bought — although some environmental mitigations were put into place after the legal battle. The brook has been kept pristine and some wetlands are protected. We haven’t seen moose in there for years, though.
I was thinking of that story recently as folks in the #DigCiz community mull over how to protect people in various online digital spaces — such as Twitter, and Facebook, and others — as we consider the topics of Civic Engagement and Digital Citizenship. Two articles shared by Doug Belshaw in his newsletter about the Feudal Internet (run by companies such as Google and Apple and Facebook and Twitter, etc.) gave this discussion a metaphorical hook. (Doug also wrote a great piece about Facebook’s data mining)
Are we all just serfs now? Is our sharing and writing our work and what the “feudal lords” get is our data and privacy as payment?
Like my neighborhood’s battle against an outside with money, our conflict with the technology giants of today is that we (society) have let them (the companies) build out our common lands, and now we don’t own much of it anymore (maybe a little wetlands here and there).
And if you don’t own it, you don’t control it. That’s the problem.
Perhaps experiments around “federated spaces” like Mastodon will help pave a new path forward. (In federated spaces, no one entity owns the experience — it is shared across networks, which connect but remain distinct). Mastodon is an alternative to Twitter. I’ve been in there and will write about my experiences some other day. I’ve also begun researching how to host a hosting ground in Mastodon (might be too technically tricky for me).
What to do? Michael Bauwens, in his piece How to Fight the Feudal Internet, notices signs of encouragement in Europe (but not much in the United States, particularly in this political climate where billionaires run the country and profit is put above all else, including the common good) and lays out what I think are some excellent suggestions:
Bauwens advocates for:
- A strict 30 day time limit on storing behavioral data.
- The right to opt out of data collection while continuing to use services.
- A ban on the sale or transfer of behavioral data, including to third-party ad networks.
- A requirement that advertising be targeted strictly to content, not users.
I’m not suggesting we the people buy up the Internet. Still, I don’t know about you, but I feel we are near or at or beyond a tipping point here with concerns and worries about discourse in online spaces. There’s still plenty of positives. But either we fix the spaces we inhabit (through pressure or force) or we abandon them for better spaces, perhaps one we build together. Then, we can own the land.
Maybe then, the moose will return.
Peace (freely and openly shared with you),