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Sharecropping in the Cloud

Rather than benefiting all, cloud computing’s main innovation will be enhanced control for technological rentiers.

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Florian Herzinger / Wikimedia

Members of the contemporary tech industry speak of cloud computing with such awe and reverence that one might think that they were referring to the Kingdom of Heaven. “The cloud is for everyone. The cloud is a democracy,” declared Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, a major business software company, in 2010.

Today, more and more companies are shifting their products and services to the cloud, most recently including Adobe with the successor to its Creative Suite of graphic design and editing software. Tech websites fill daily with articles arguing for businesses and individuals to transfer their data to the cloud. As Steve Jobs once commented, “I don’t need a hard disk in my computer if I can get to the server faster… carrying around these non-connected computers is byzantine by comparison.” Few in the industry would argue against the convenience and opportunities provided by the technology.

This consensus, however, is not without its discontents. Instead of functioning as a digital democracy, the net activist Jaron Lanier sees the cloud as more of a feudal kingdom. In his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier illustrated the stratification of the digital world into “Peasants and Lords of the Clouds”: the lords own the digital architecture and are rewarded handsomely for it, while the creative class forms the peasantry, reduced to providing content for free and hoping for patronage.

To extend Lanier’s metaphor further, one might compare the emerging predominance of the cloud with the economic transition from feudalism to capitalism. As with their historical counterparts in the countryside during the emergence of capitalism, economic transition and technological improvements are transforming digital peasants into sharecroppers who must pay periodic fees under the lord’s terms for the privilege of utilizing software or viewing content. Historically, as today, elites used legal mechanisms combined with paeans to rights and efficiency to justify their new systems of rents and control at the expense of ordinary people.

The availability and accessibility of information over the past several centuries has, of course, increased enormously as common people have gained access to print, broadcast, and online media through new technological developments. Until recently, as each medium was introduced, it tended to complement rather than replace its predecessors. Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, newspaper circulation has grown fairly steadily (with declines in Europe and North America offset by growth in the developing world). Book sales continue to grow in all markets. Over 80 percent of the US population has a personal computer at home, and of those 93 percent have broadband internet access.

Cloud computing seems likely to overturn the personal ownership of those old forms of media like books, CDs, and DVDs. Instead, individuals use a client on an electronic device like tablets, smart phones, and e-book readers to access servers that contain the data they want to retrieve. Under Digital Rights Management (DRM), which form the technologies used to control access to content for the user, this includes streaming services for music like Spotify, film and TV like Netflix and Hulu, books like Kindle and Nook, and computer software and games. Increasingly, the model of “software as a service” is being adopted by both individuals, as with Google Apps, and businesses, as with Salesforce. For those with broadband, it’s faster, simpler, and relies less on the limitations of the hard disk space they possess.

But what does it mean when software is a service, delivering content without physical ownership for the consumer? Strangely, in 2012, the New York Review of Books, one of the flagships of print culture, published an essay entitled “E-books can’t burn.” Arguing that the e-book forms a more pure literary experience given the standardization in appearance and configuration:

the e-book’s ease of transport, its international vocation (could the Iron Curtain have kept out e-books?), its indestructibility (you can’t burn e-books), its promise that all books will be able to remain forever in print and what is more available at reasonable prices, and it becomes harder and harder to see why the literati are not giving the phenomenon a more generous welcome.

All very nice. True, e-books cannot be burned. But to remove content, one does not have to burn anything – content can simply be deleted from the server. In 2009, Amazon quietly erased an e-book version of 1984 from its servers and on the Kindles of customers who had paid for it. The issue in that case was one of licensing from the rights holder to the book’s copyright, but it illustrates how little recourse the ordinary customer has in the cloud against tech giants like Amazon.

Physical books can be held essentially in perpetuity, annotated and defaced as the owner sees fit, loaned to friends, and accumulated into a collection that can be inherited by one’s descendants. None of this is possible with data controlled centrally from a server and rented to customers remotely. The growth of personal book collections coupled with public libraries has given unprecedented access to print information; now, libraries face proposals to ditch circulating print collections in favor of loaning out e-books.

And the stranglehold of major book publishers is nothing compared to the power of e-book platform owners. In July 2013, a federal judge ruled that Apple had colluded with several major publishers to fix the price of e-books. Amazon’s dominance in the e-book market – a 90 percent share in 2010, still at 65 percent today – gives it the power to strong-arm publishers into predatory pricing.

But this is about more than just books – virtually every modern information and entertainment medium is facing the same pressures of shifting toward the cloud.

Previously, the owner of software like Adobe Creative Suite could use the program so long as they possessed a computer meeting the system requirements on which the software is installed. Now, however, Adobe CS has been phased out in favor of Adobe Creative Cloud, turning users into renters of the software, paying a subscription fee and periodically updating their operating system (OS) and hardware.

This doesn’t apply just for business software. Consider the 1998 real-time strategy game Starcraft. For over a decade after its release, it was enjoyed by gamers around the world, and effectively became a national sport in South Korea. The sequel, Starcraft II, is accessed primarily online through a relaunched platform called Battle.net, requiring users to upgrade their OS and even their hardware to continue accessing the game – even if they met the minimum system requirements when they originally purchased it.

In this shift to the cloud, consumers of media are being transformed from effective owners, still legally subject to licensing restrictions but in physical possession of media, to renters, held captive by the whims of corporate rentiers backed by a tightening intellectual property regime. As Peter Frase has argued, this emphasis on intellectual property and rents has been and will remain a defining feature of contemporary capitalism.

As societies transitioned from feudalism to capitalism, the relationship of many peasants to the land was also altered from one of effective control to tenancy. Previously, even though serfs had obligations to their lords, they also possessed certain guarantees from them, such as food assistance in case of crop failure or famine. And despite the overall ownership of lords, many serfs maintained effective control over their own land and were free to farm as they wished once they had delivered a certain amount of goods to their own liege lord.

But as modernity dawned in Europe, British peasants lost their use rights as common lands were enclosed and made private under the Inclosure Acts. Such laws claimed to be “in the public interest,” but in reality empowered landlords to become industrial capitalists, using their lands for large-scale agricultural production or selling them to railroads or other ventures. The dispossessed peasants were left to work these lands as agricultural laborers. If peasants could not afford the increased rents after enclosure – typically doubling – they would have to flee to the cities to work as industrial proletarians.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russian peasants, too, faced encroachment on the authority of their self-governing communes (obshchina) from a modernizing state and profit-seeking landlords. The serfs shifted from people into commodities, whose “souls” couId be cynically bought, sold, and mortgaged, as in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. In all cases, the control and influence the aristocratic class exerted over the legal system enabled them to adapt to the changing economic situation, while disoriented ordinary people were subjected to new forms of exploitation. This does not appear to be different for the future of the cloud, as the tech sector’s increasingly massive lobbying efforts influence Congress to strengthen intellectual property laws in their favor.

In time, cloud computing will likely improve access to data for the general public and facilitate further technological progress. But, even ignoring general questions of data security and availability of broadband access, all the cloud seems to promise in the short run is spiraling costs for consumers who will need to update devices and pay rental fees as profits increase for tech companies that will function more as rentiers than innovators.

A sentiment some might consider “luddite,” perhaps. But even mainstream commentators like Paul Krugman are coming around to the idea that luddites have usually been ordinary people acting rationally to maintain their income and avoid cost increases in consumption, rather than simple technophobes. These days, it seems better to be a luddite with an unrestricted physical media collection than a sharecropper in the cloud, constantly beholden to tech companies for current hardware and access to software, information, and entertainment.

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