The feudalism of the internet is a topic that I have encountered many times over the course of my Communication and Media degree. It is a concept that I have not paid much attention, nor given any credence to. However, after recently attending a lecture by Dr Ted Mitew, the concept has become a great deal clearer to me, and its importance understood.
To rewind a bit, it is important to know what exactly media commentators mean when they talk about the ‘feudalism’ of the internet. Feudalism is a hierarchical system in which there is a single chain of command through which the society is controlled. In historical terms, it describes a Lord of a manor, who controls the actions of the peasants. In his lecture, Dr Ted Mitew compared this historical metaphor with that of the Apple corporation. He argued that Apple controlled the iManor, from which consumers (peasants) bought their iPhones and iPads (or their land). These tethered devices are owned by the consumers, however through iTunes and the App Store, Apple controls the use of these devices by only allowing approved Apps to be sold through the store. Additionally, these devices cannot be altered by software. They are very static pieces of technology that cannot be manipulated for undesired purposes (unless of course they are jailbroken).
However why this is so important is not necessarily clear. In January 2012, it was reported that Apple had sold more iPads than any single PC maker sold computers during the previous year. Whilst this signals that congratulations are in order for Apple, it also highlights the appeal and demand of these tethered devices. This raises the debate that these feudal companies (walled garden) pose a threat to the open internet. What happens to the freedom of the internet if the majority of consumers access the internet through devices controlled by a corporation? Again, using Apple devices as an example, iPhones and iPads cannot view Flash Player. If a website contains something created through Flash Player, it cannot be viewed by that person. If the rise in consumption of Apple products continues, web designers will have to abandon Flash Player in place of something more Apple friendly. Thus we see the threat to the freedom of the internet that Feudalism can cause.
One cannot ignore the obvious appeal that Apple products hold, communicated through their massive consumption. Yet it is important to consider the threats that these walled gardens of the internet pose. Whilst Apple has been used as an example here, it is not the only walled garden existing on the internet. Facebook is another example in which users cannot alter the use of the website outside what Facebook permits, and information cannot be accessed from outside websites such as Google. Whilst initial terminology surrounding the feudalism of the internet can seem ambiguous, once broken down it is easier to understand and the greater ramifications of the concept revealed.
Mitew, T 2012, BCM310, ‘Feudalisation of the Internet’, lectures notes, accessed April 23rd April 2012, eLearning@UOW