Thursday, May 25, 2017

Tech Feudalism: Another Sign of End Times

Last week Naked Capitalism posted a terrific piece, "Notes From an Emergency: Tech Feudalism," by Maciej Cegłowski. Ceglowski defines "the feudal internet" as follows:
The status quo in May 2017 looks like this:
There are five Internet companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Together they have a market capitalization just under 3 trillion dollars.
Bruce Schneier has called this arrangement the feudal Internet. Part of this concentration is due to network effects, but a lot of it is driven by the problem of security. If you want to work online with any measure of convenience and safety, you must choose a feudal lord who is big enough to protect you.
These five companies compete and coexist in complex ways.
Apple and Google have a duopoly in smartphone operating systems. Android has 82% of the handset market, iOS has 18%.
Google and Facebook are on their way to a duopoly in online advertising. Over half of the revenue in that lucrative ($70B+) industry goes to them, and the two companies between them are capturing all of the growth (16% a year).
Apple and Microsoft have a duopoly in desktop operating systems. The balance is something like nine to one in favor of Windows, not counting the three or four people who use Linux on the desktop, all of whom are probably at this conference.
Three companies, Amazon, Microsoft and Google, dominate cloud computing. AWS has 57% adoption, Azure has 34%. Google has 15%.
Outside of China and Russia, Facebook and LinkedIn are the only social networks at scale. LinkedIn has been able to survive by selling itself to Microsoft.
And outside of Russia and China, Google is the world’s search engine.
That is the state of the feudal Internet, leaving aside the court jester, Twitter, who plays an important but ancillary role as a kind of worldwide chat room.
 As China is donning the mantle of global leadership with its One Belt, One Road Initiative and Made in China 2025, the U.S. is looking to expand perpetual war to more parts of the planet. On the one hand you have China which is looking to build, on the other hand you have the United States which is looking to destroy. Most would dismiss this as an oversimplification, but what other conclusion can we draw?

The only thing the United States has in the way of an industrial policy is to be found in Silicon Valley where a mad dash is underway to corner the market with the first commercially successful self-driving vehicle. The masters of the tech universe, as Ceglowski explains, are also enraptured with space travel and immortality:
Given this scary state of the world, with ecological collapse just over the horizon, and a population sharpening its pitchforks, an important question is how this globalized, unaccountable tech industry sees its goals. What does it want? What will all the profits be invested in?
What is the plan?
The honest answer is: rocket ships and immortality.
I wish I was kidding.
The best minds in Silicon Valley are preoccupied with a science fiction future they consider it their manifest destiny to build. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are racing each other to Mars. Musk gets most of the press, but Bezos now sells $1B in Amazon stock a year to fund Blue Origin. Investors have put over $8 billion into space companies over the past five years, as part of a push to export our problems here on Earth into the rest of the Solar System.
As happy as I am to see Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos fired into space, this does not seem to be worth the collapse of representative government.
Our cohort of tech founders is feeling the chill breath of mortality as they drift into middle age. And so part of what is driving this push into space is a more general preoccupation with ‘existential risk’.
Musk is persuaded that we’re living in a simulation, and he or a fellow true believer has hired programmers to try to hack it.
Peter Thiel, our most unfortunate German import, has built a survival retreat for himself in New Zealand.
Sam Altman hoards gold in Big Sur.
OpenAI, a religious cult thinly disguised as a research institution, has received $1B in funding to forestall the robot rebellion.
The biggest existential risk, of course, is death, so a lot of money is going to make sure that our big idea men don’t expire before the world has been received the full measure of their genius.
Google Ventures founded the very secretive life extension startup Calico, with $1.5B dollars in funding. Google loses $4B a year on its various “moon shots”, which include life extension. They employ Ray Kurzweil, who believes we’re still on track for immortality by 2045. Larry Ellison has put $370M to anti-aging research, as anybody would want to live in a world with an immortal Larry Ellison. Our plutocrats are eager to make death an opt-out experience.
Now, I’m no fan of death. I don’t like the time commitment, or the permanence. A number of people I love are dead and it has strained our relationship.
But at the same time, I’m not convinced that a civilization that is struggling to cure male-pattern baldness is ready to take on the Grim Reaper. If we’re going to worry about existential risk, I would rather we start by addressing the two existential risks that are indisputably real—nuclear war and global climate change—and working our way up from there.
But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.
The tech industry enjoys tearing down flawed institutions, but refuses to put work into mending them. Their runaway apparatus of surveillance and manipulation earns them a fortune while damaging everything it touches. And all they can think about is the cool toys they’ll get to spend the profits on.
The message that’s not getting through to Silicon Valley is one that your mother taught you when you were two: you don’t get to play with the new toys until you clean up the mess you made.
The circumstances that have given the tech industry all this power will not last long. There is a limited time in which our small caste of tech nerds will have the power to make decisions that shape the world. By wasting the talents and the energies of our brightest people on fantasy role play, we are ceding the future to a more practical group of successors, some truly scary people who will take our tools and use them to advance a very different agenda.
To recap: the Internet has centralized into a very few hands. We have an extremely lucrative apparatus of social control, and it’s being run by chuckleheads.
The American government is also being run by chuckleheads.
The question everybody worries about is, what happens when these two groups of chuckleheads join forces?
I think the answer is that end times are upon us.


  1. They've already joined forces. We're just watching professional wrestling, with the exception that Trump wasn't supposed to win. The Deep State merely misjudged how unpopular Hillary was.

    I've been thinking about writing an essay explaining how the Deep State/CIA has had their fingers in every presidential race since they bumped off JFK, and why they never counted on a sociopath like Trump (as opposed to a sociopath like Clinton) winning the presidency.

  2. I completely agree. Huge blunder. Titanic miscalculation. I think everyone was fooled. I refer back to the exit polls day of election. They had Hillary walking away with it. Merkel's distancing Deutschland from Uncle Trump has to be interpreted not only as an election-year move on her part but also as preparation for his coming ouster.