Essay by William Kherbek

Techno-Feudalism and The Tragedy of The Commons

Once I had a friend who had a blog. She referred to what she did on the blog as “generating content”; as in, if you met her and asked her what she did, her answer would begin something like – “I have a website and I generate content for it.” The first time I heard it, I assumed she was being ironic, but then it happened a second time. By the third time she said it, I’d stopped waiting for a punch line. There were a few occasions when I introduced her to someone, they would press and try to find out what kind of content it was that she generated. In these instances, it always took the person several more questions to find out that what she did was once referred to as “writing”.

These exchanges – there were at least three that I can remember clearly – always struck me as the manifestation of one further victory in the relentless advance of the values and jargon of business schools into every area of life. As the sharing economy inflates from the collective capitulatory sigh of a generation, it’s now possible to understand almost everything one does as “generating content”. Every time a red heart glows in the corner of a tweet, some new content has just been generated. Years later, my face lit by a thou­sand little glowing hearts on the screen of my antiquated Samsung Galaxy, a question that has troubled me ever since those awkward social encounters of the early 2010s has re-emerged with a new urgency: how did Generation Generate, shaped by the large-scale popular struggles of two preceding gen­erations, come to find itself at swim in a neoliberalism that is so pervasive it’s scarcely able to even detect? How, also, did this generation at large come to accept the terms of this discussion as something resembling “natural”?

There are a few possible answers, including “thirty years of relentless market worship by politicians and the media that puts even the cozy Mosque-State relations of Saudi Arabia to shame.” But origin stories often run deeper than the propaganda they generate. In the case of the Generation Generate, the roots of their intellectual and economic predicament, in which attention itself becomes a commodity, stretch back, quite organically, to a pasture.

  • <p>Limbourg Brothers, <em>Très riches heures du Duc Berry,</em> July, ca. 1440, (c) public domain</p>
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    Limbourg Brothers, Très riches heures du Duc Berry, July, ca. 1440, (c) public domain

  • <p>Limbourg Brothers, <em>Très riches heures du Duc Berry,</em> December, ca. 1440, (c) public domain</p>
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    Limbourg Brothers, Très riches heures du Duc Berry, December, ca. 1440, (c) public domain

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ has given its name to a concept that has dominated the understanding of resource allocation in contemporary social theory as few other ideas have. Put succinctly, any resource held in common, in Hardin’s view of the world, will eventually be destroyed by overuse because it is almost always in the individual interests of users to maximize their personal use of a resource before someone else in the group, by virtue of the same logic, does. Hardin, an ecologist, found fertile metaphorical soil in the image of a communal pastureland:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy (Hardin, 1968, p.1244).

Now that the good old days of tribal war and famine are over, Hardin suggests, the real troubles start – as a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd” (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244). A few years ago, a descendant of the Herdsman was seen stenciling “How Will This Benefit Me” on the walls of East London.

A few points are worth marking before continuing: astute readers will note that Hardin’s herdsman is male. He is also – by definition in the Game Theory-infused Cold War-era America of Hardin’s time, – a “rational being”. These two conceptions imply their own biases on Hardin’s part, and they are, thankfully, easier to identify today, but it is the latter bias that is particularly salient from an economic standpoint. Key to Hardin’s notion of tragedy in his paper is the sense of inevitability it entails: all things being equal, rational beings will seek ways to make them unequal. Such gloomy logic prompts a seemingly obvious question: Is the tragedy of the commons inevitable?

To begin the interrogation of the concept of the tragedy of the commons perhaps the most important thing to acknowledge at the outset is that the thought experiment it is based on is limited in the ways described above, and that it also relies on idealizations that, while beneficial in hard sciences like biology or linguistics, can be fatal to theories in the social sciences. Daniel Cole, Graham Epstein and Michael McGinnis, for example, note that the institutional structures that create the market, to which the Herdsman would be taking his cattle to, are not taken into account in the construction Hardin postulates. For the market to which the herdsman will take his cattle to be functional, reliable and worth raising animals for, numerous social structures must already exist in the herdsman’s immediate territory (Cole, Epstein, McGinnis, 2014, p. 354-355). As David Graeber has pointed out in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, markets – in particular markets for specific goods – are not always inevitable outgrowths of human nature and often require cultivation by institutions and states.

Undoing Tragedy Logic: The Writings of Elinor Ostrom

Beyond the question of the elision of background social relations in Hardin’s thought experiment, the most thorough refutation of the basic presumptions of the tragedy of the commons are found in the work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. In her research, Ostrom reversed the usual process of standard economic modeling and used the data of the real world. Instead of thought experiments to guide her and her co-researchers’ understanding of the ways in which resources held in common are consumed and preserved, her research included explorations of communities in a variety of social groupings located in vastly different economic and political contexts. Ostrom’s studies found that in both traditional and high-tech societies the social relations around what she refers to as “common pool resources” – resources that are neither completely private nor offi­cially public, as in, owned by a government on behalf of a people – produce a diversity of out­comes. Ostrom herself was somewhat allergic to thought experiments (indeed, she says that what originally drew her to questioning Hardin’s assumptions was the neatness of his assumptions (Ostrom, 2011), so her research doesn’t have the kind of conceptual cleanliness seen in Hardin’s paper.

To understand the questions that guided her, it may do some good to return to the pasture and imagine it a little bit more fully. In an Ostromian pasture, all the same individuals are in place: the herdsfolk, the cattle, the pasture, and, of course, the market, but the players in this thought experiment behave differently than those Hardin imagined (Ostrom, 2010). The herdsmen of Ostrom’s pasture, also rational beings, will notice the depletion in the resources they are using and they will ask themselves questions like, ‘what happens if we all graze this pasture at the maximum possible level’. Ostromian herdsfolk, therefore, can conceive of the consequences of their actions, and are, thus, unlikely to behave like algorithms executing a DDOS attack on themselves. As they communicate, understanding spreads and an awareness of the problem emerges on the part of the community. The community will then create rules for the use of the pasture and they will find ways to ensure that no one in the community acts like Hardin’s herdsman and presses a disastrous advantage. The question, for a social scientist like Ostrom, was whether her intuitive expectations about human nature were closer to the reality of human behavior than those of Hardin. The decades of research she and those following similar conceptions of human nature have complied seems to suggest she was.

Common Pool Resources

In a 1992 paper that focused on fishing communities in societies as diverse as Alaska, Brazil, Newfoundland and Turkey, Ostrom and her co-researcher, Edella Schlager, identified three important aspects to the social structures governing the use of common pool resources. Members of the community must have rights of management (the capacity to determine the ways in which a resource is used), exclusion (the capacity to determine who can use the resource) and alienation (the right of users to essentially hire out their own rights to certain accepted others) (Ostrom and Schlager, 1992, p. 252). They determined that ‘self-organized, collective-choice arrangements can produce operational rules closely matched to the physical and economic conditions of a particular site’ (Ostrom and Schlager, 1992, p.255). In other words, just because you find a pasture doesn’t mean you have to ruin it. Indeed, there are many real world ex­amples of Ostromian approaches to communal resource management, some of which were even formalized in law, as in the once-famous Charter of the Forest, which formalized the status of English forests along proto-Ostromian lines.

Later work by Ostrom and other co-researchers have attempted to determine the key principles necessary for overcoming the tragedy of the commons in more general circumstances. (i) Though the matrices Ostrom and colleagues have produced are often complex (in her talks, Ostrom frequently speaks of the necessity of “embracing complexity”)(ii) one ingredient is key to all solutions for averting a tragedy of the commons – the lifeblood of the global digital economy: communication. If communication prevents tragedies of the commons from emerging, (iii) why then, in an age in which connections across borders and cultures are easier to make than ever before, and tweeples of all sorts drive social change via hashtags, are we not enjoying an age of environmentally conscious, human-sized growth directed by communities working in common to preserve the commonwealth of the planet? There are the usual entrenched evils of racism, sexism, patriarchy and homophobia to blame, to be sure, but somewhere behind even the well-ordered lobster-fishing boats of Ostrom’s field studies, ride the Four Herdsmen of the Apocalypse in a pale-cultured Uber. As the overlords of the digital economy understand well, flawed logic, when persuasively articulated or engagingly presented, can be impervious to facts.

We Reserve the Right to Terminate this Agreement Without Notice: Techno-Feudalism and Resistance

The cognitive dissonance generated by the distance between daily experience and the thought experiments we live by has created a set of conditions that are ripe for exploitation. Indeed, Trebor Scholz seems to recognize the tragedy of the commons logic in his essay ‘Platform Cooperativism vs. The Sharing Economy’ (2014). He argues that far from there being “one, inevitable future of work”, the capacity for self-organized labor groupings in the techno-economy already exists. There are, he notes, also precedents from IRL – citing E.P. Thompson and Robert Owen as key figures for reference in conceptualizing worker/gigger collectivism. The structure Scholz – following Sascha Lobo and Martin Kenney – describes as emerging from the evolving sharing economy is ‘Platform Capitalism’, in which corporations develop or appropriate ways of integrating previously intrinsically independent forms of economic activity (e.g. home cleaning, carpooling, or dog walking) into a set of economic protocols that result in massive financial bonanzas for corporate executives but inscribe ever deeper tenuousness into the lives of the professional pet grooming classes (Scholz, 2014). Certainly, Scholz is identifying a genuine phenomenon, but the question is whether that phenomenon is actually capitalist in nature even if it is capitalistic in consequence. The features of what Scholz describes, corporations using vehicles or rooms they don’t own to generate profits, rather than the historical understandings of the relationship between capital and labor in classical economics, more closely resemble the relations that defined feudalism. Indeed, they may be thought of as the basis of a new kind of feudalism. As Generation Generate creates content one click at a time, the opportunity to redefine labor relations is inscribed in the “(information) sharing economy” proceeds. While the bleak, plantation model of unpaid internships and zero-hour indenture is familiar to anyone under 35 years of age, a reconceptualization of the nature of what ‘labor’ consists of is critical to escaping a new kind of commons tragedy. To use the term techno-feudalism to characterize this condition is to invite derision, (searching for information on the ad­vance of techno-feudalism, many of the books on the subject include the phrase “New World Order” somewhere in their titles)(iv), but let’s consider the structure of the feudal model.

<p>Detail: Lorenzo Sandoval, <em>Shadow Writing (What is it that makes </em><em>algorithms so different, so appealing?)</em>, Berlin Art Prize 2018, photo: Florian Denzin</p>

Detail: Lorenzo Sandoval, Shadow Writing (What is it that makes algorithms so different, so appealing?), Berlin Art Prize 2018, photo: Florian Denzin

The English variation, at least, places the monarch at the top of a pyramid granting the use of land to lords and vassals who then employ serfs to create wealth. The serf may have rights, and the lord may have obligations, but in this arrangement the serf is still paying to be exploited. I think about this every time I click on a ‘user agreement’. The contemporary techno-feudal system may look much more like what the philosopher, Sheldon Wolin, has described, in reference to the current governing structure of the United States, as “inverted totalitarianism”. In Wolin’s vision, the classic signifiers of totalitarianism are turned “upside down”, resulting in a functionally acephalous political system dominated by competing oligopolistic institutions (Wolin, 2008, pp. 51-64). Instead of rallying the hypnotized population in the service of a Big Brother figure, in Wolin’s conception, apathy and powerlessness are the greatest political virtues, democratic participation is neutered despite the formal structures of democracy remaining in place. A kind of ‘democracy drag’ (queen optional) is thus created, and becomes more or less convincing depending on the integration of the individual into the ideological structure of the system.

Such inversion is a feature of a techno-feudalist society. There may not be a lord or king from whose directives all order flows, but one can easily position tech entrepreneurs and app creating companies as a kind of colloquy of techno-vassals and sub-vassals to whom the Facebooking population pay tribute with their information. The capacity for deep penetration into social and personal relations has never been greater; every aspect of the techno-serf’s existence becomes capable of being monetized by the tech-lords from sexual preference and proclivities to the amount of time one spends looking at an article or a meme of Tom Selleck’s ghostly visage hovering beside a waterfall and a sandwich.

This Wolin-esque invert­ed feudal system is built on a psychology deeply informed by the logic of the tragedy of the com­mons. Consider one of the archetypal business­es to emerge as a feature of the sharing economy: Airbnb. For the few who haven’t used it: through the platform benevolently overseen by CEO Brian Chesky, under-utilized spaces in flats can be rented out to travellers unable – or unwilling – to pay for hotel rooms. This creates a notionally virtuous circle; urban space can be used to bring its owner (or, crucially, leaser/sub-vassal) income. Thus, space does not remain fallow and a person on a limited budget can experience the mind-expanding possibilities of travel. You meet the flat’s owner, and you meet her friends, ‘…and they’re just like your friends…’ Sounds like more fun than generating content for a living. Hoteliers, not normally known for their sense of common humanity, have predictably rallied against the rise of this alternative, but less visible is the distorting effect the company has on the rental market in a geographical space. Carolyn Said has document­ed in relation to ‘Airbnb’s Ground Zero’, San Francisco, the amount of rental space being put on the market for Airbnb instantly removes space that could be rented out at less profitable monthly rates.

The wage supplement that the extra income provides to the flat owner allows other forms of income, for example, salary, to remain constant without a noticeable decline in living standards. ‘And then I met your friends and they were as poor as my friends…’ Soon enough, in such a dynamic, a tragedy of the commons’ logic takes hold: if I don’t rent out my spare room – even if I’m not actively penalized by a Spare Bedroom Tax – then I’m still subject to the rent pressures created by other people renting out their spare rooms. If I don’t have any chance of getting money any other way (e.g. I’m already working full time as an adjunct lecturer) then I’m losing ground in a pitiless sharing economy. Can you hear the cattle lowing a dirge on the pasture? It is all very well to note in an academic seminar far from the frontline of economic precarity that Ostrom’s work has demonstrated that this dilemma is not an inevitability. The overwhelming question is how these insights can be translated into meaningful action.

Tweets of Freedom: Creating and Managing A Techno-Commons

They say that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The problem of the capacity for corporations like Google, Facebook and their many sub-vassals to monetize information provided to them for free is clear enough and the recent scandals involving corporate tax avoidance in the UK have shed light on the ways in which corporations who exploit information generated by users also avoid the traditional form of redistribution of wealth: taxation. Companies like Uber have also demonstrated a relentless determination to keep employees from organizing, or even knowing about each other, an indicator that they are aware of the potential for a broken link inscribed in the logic of the tragedy of the commons. The question becomes how the prospective techno-serfs can prevent their precarity from becoming the engine of a tragedy. In a Wolin-esque model of government in which legislators are unwilling or unable to implement meaningful penalties on corporations that use radical tax avoidance strategies, it is up to the techno-serfs to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, Ostrom herself voiced skepticism about the willingness of government to act to prevent tragedies of the commons from emerging; participation by populations was the only real hope she envisioned to prevent, for example, large-scale environmental tragedy in the face of climate change (Ostrom, 2010). The capacity to create networked communities to respond to the exploitation of techno-feudalist structures is inscribed in the technology that makes sharing economy-based exploitation possible, even if the results of this capacity in terms of resistance have been politically ambiguous at best. But, as Scholz argues, the ease of reproducing the business model of Uber, or any of the other sharing economy mainstays, could be their downfall as hegemons: en­terprising, politicized app developers can produce a viable version of the UberX system and place it under the control of a platform cooperative (Scholz, 2014).

<p>Detail: Nina Wiesnagrotzki, <i>Toad, </i>2018, from the series <i>Chinese Seismic Investigations</i><i>, </i>Berlin Art Prize 2018, photo Florian Denzin</p>

Detail: Nina Wiesnagrotzki, Toad, 2018, from the series Chinese Seismic Investigations, Berlin Art Prize 2018, photo Florian Denzin

The clear-eyed professional tech-skeptic, Evgeny Morozov, has also written about this issue. Morozov’s main target, again, is Uber, noting that its capital reserves allow the company to pummel competitors into submission by providing cheaper-than-market prices to lure in customers and drive com­petition – literally – out of business like Wal-Mart and Starbucks before them (Morozov 2016). Morozov’s solution is taxation of the platform lords’ profits. Scholz favors the potential decentralized collectivism of Thompson and Owens, reimagined for a digital labor context. Another possible solution would be forcing the corporations that monetize the information provided by users to calculate the estimated value a given user generates for their business in terms of information sales, and provide that individual with a dividend check at the end of, say, a financial quarter in recognition of that person’s contribution to the corporation’s bottom line.

If the first step in recovery is realizing you have a problem, perhaps the next most important step is identifying aspects of your own life that make it harder to solve the problem. Scholz’s notion of cooperativism is quite attractive, but the question that it prompts is whether it is possible for a generation so completely steeped in neoliberal discourse and, often, placed in such precarious economic situations in their professional lives to return to a classical ‘collectivist’ model? It strikes me as unlikely as governments willingly adopting Morozov’s taxation solution, or the plan for sharing econ­omy companies redistributing their profits to their workers. Thirty-plus years of corporate think tanks churning out ‘research’ on the efficiency of private solutions to all problems, marketization of commodities as diverse as public transport, public health and government intelligence provision, privatization of institutions like universities, even the Royal Mail, the outsourcing of the outsourcable and the subjugation of the rest, and the relentless intrusion into public cultural institutions will be very difficult to meaningfully resist. Any solution must encompass the same kind of flexibility that the structures it opposes possess. It may not, in the short term, be possible, or even desir­able, for Generation Generate to embrace cooperativist solutions on a large-scale, but perhaps the answer lies in making the capacity to act collectively look much more like the “individual choice” and “flexibility” that platform techno-lords provide.

Perhaps app-based organization will be the way the tragedy of the commons logic of techno-feudalism is defeated, such as the structuring of a labor organizing platform that moves as easily between in­dustries as an Uber driver coming home to let her Airbnb customers into the spare room. As Ostrom’s work makes clear, tragedy isn’t inevitable, but it is possible. Generation Generate faces a number of crises, but the script of the future, for the moment, is as open to editing as a Google Doc. The prospect of the digital commons remains a reality. Its users (still) have the capacity to prevent it from becoming the site of another tragedy, but any solution will entail the recognition of one’s own rights in the system and the necessity, like the fishers, the forest societies and even the herdsmen before them, to communicate, to build institutions of resistance and to act. Techno-Feudalism is different than the IRL version for as many reasons as it is similar, but most notably because Version 1.0 was imposed after the collapse of the structures that underpinned society. Version 2.0 is proceeding piece by piece, one user agreement at a time. In other words, it’s getting dark out on the pasture, but it’s not too late yet.

This text was first published in Doggerland Journal #1, 2016. The author William Kherbek organized a program of readings under the theme “commons” during the exhibition of the Berlin Art Prize 2018.


i. Among the structures and relations Ostrom identifies are: attributes of the community, rules, biophysical conditions, actions/action situations, participants, interactions, outcomes and evaluative criteria, all of which form a set of relations which define choice-making in complex social structures (Ostrom, 2005, p.15).

ii. See “Elinor Ostrom on the Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”, available on YouTube. This video is taken from a discussion between Ostrom and Amartya Sen entitled “A Discussion on Global Justice” from 2011, the full video of that discussion can be found on YouTube as well.

iii. Ostrom acknowledges that not all tragedies of the commons are avoidable, the question for social science is determining when they might be and developing strategies to minimize such genuine tragedies of the commons as may exist. Regarding the Tragedy of the Spare Bedroom, there have been institutional responses, but they continue to vary. Cities like Barcelona have attempted to legally sanction certain aspects of commercial use of dwellings, but the advance of gig-ification of housing seems unstoppable. Spare bedrooms aren’t exactly a “commons” in the same way a pasture is, but defeating the discredited logic of the tragedy of the commons is the first step toward preventing Airbnb-style platforms from further entrenching precarious wage practices as well as the odious advantages of possessing entrenched capital and the attraction of rent-seeking – a problem that exercised economists as ideologically diverse as David Ricardo and JM Keynes. If it isn’t “inevitable” that you have to monetize your broom closet to survive, perhaps that is the beginning of redefining economic obligation in a decentralizing economy.

iv. New World Order: The Rise of Techno-Feudalism by Dr. Dennis L. Cuddy is a representative example of the genre and offers perspectives on every aspect of the incipient global control system including Obamacare and other mainstays of Youtube demonology