Many people compare the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) to the Industrial Revolution, which was a period of rapid economic and social change in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Industrial Revolution was driven by the invention and application of new technologies, such as steam engines, railways, factories, and textiles, which enabled mass production, transportation, and communication. However, this comparison may not capture the full extent and uniqueness of the changes that AI is bringing to our world. A more appropriate analogy can be found in the Middle Ages, which was a period of profound transformation and transition in European history, spanning from the 5th to the 15th century. The Middle Ages were marked by political fragmentation, social inequality, religious diversity, cultural exchange, scientific innovation, artistic expression, and military conflict. The Middle Ages also witnessed the collapse of the Roman Empire, the rise of feudalism, the emergence of nation-states, the spread of Christianity and Islam, the development of scholasticism and humanism, the invention of the printing press and gunpowder, and the discovery of new lands.
Here are some reasons why the AI Revolution resembles the Middle Ages more than the Industrial Revolution:
- The AI Revolution is not just about machines, but about ideas. The Industrial Revolution was driven by the development and application of mechanical and chemical technologies, such as steam engines, railways, factories, and textiles. These technologies enabled mass production, transportation, and communication, but they did not necessarily change the way people thought or behaved. The AI Revolution, on the other hand, is driven by the development and application of cognitive and digital technologies, such as natural language processing, computer vision, machine learning, and robotics. These technologies enable not only automation, but also intelligence, creativity, and interaction. They challenge and expand our notions of what is possible and desirable in various domains of human activity, such as art, science, education, health, and governance.
- The AI Revolution is not just about progress, but about disruption. The Industrial Revolution was marked by a gradual and linear process of economic and social change, where new technologies replaced or complemented existing ones, and where new industries and markets emerged or grew. The AI Revolution, on the other hand, is marked by a rapid and nonlinear process of economic and social change, where new technologies disrupt or displace existing ones, and where new industries and markets appear or vanish. The AI Revolution creates new opportunities and challenges for individuals and organizations, but also new uncertainties and risks.
- The AI Revolution is not just about convergence, but about divergence. The Industrial Revolution was characterized by a process of convergence and integration among different regions and cultures, as trade, migration, and communication increased. The Industrial Revolution also fostered a process of standardization and homogenization among different products and practices, as mass production and consumption prevailed. The AI Revolution, on the other hand, is characterized by a process of divergence and differentiation among different regions and cultures, as innovation, competition, and customization increase. The AI Revolution also fosters a process of diversification and specialization among different products and practices, as personalization and niche markets prevail.
The AI Revolution is a new dawn. It’s a time of great potential and peril, much like the Middle Ages. The challenge for us now is to ensure that this new age benefits all of humanity, not just a privileged few. The choices we make now will shape the course of our future, much like the events of the Middle Ages shaped the world we live in today.
The Rise of a New Class: From Feudal Lords to Data Lords
The development of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence is birthing a new ruling class that mirrors medieval Europe’s feudal system – data lords in place of land barons. As with feudal hierarchies, these modern “lords” gain power and wealth through their ownership and control of a critical resource. In the Middle Ages, land ownership shaped social strata. Wealthy nobles leveraged vast tracts of territory to dominate farming, demand taxes and tribute, and amass political power. Peasants toiled in servitude to access the fields they needed to survive. Land conferred near-absolute authority on its owners over those who dwelled upon and worked the soil. Today, a similar lord-serf dynamic is emerging based on the possession and manipulation of data rather than dirt. As the “oil of the information age,” personal data generated through online activities has become immensely lucrative and influential. Its collectors and curators accrue fortunes and clout much as feudal overlords once did through land monopolies. Tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon (but not only) now preside over digital “fiefdoms” of terabytes worth of individual user data profiles. This vast trove of personal details about everything from web searches and social connections to purchase histories is the new currency that grants dominance. By targeting ads and offerings based on comprehensive dossiers, these data lords extract revenue from every click in their online “manors.”
Simultaneously, they gain control over political processes, cultural trends, and even individual identity formation to much the same effect as medieval manorial systems. Ordinary netizens are reduced to digital “peasants” sharing intel in exchange for service access akin to peasants paying land rent. This imbalance of power could concentrate ever more data – and the influence it commands – into fewer hands if left unchecked. As machine learning models become more omniscient through unimpeded ingestion of personal minutiae, data barons will gain near-omnipotent surveillance over daily lives. They will know citizens better than citizens know themselves and mould behaviours accordingly. This threatens to entrench data feudalism if citizens relinquish agency over their digital footprints and online experiences remain pay-to-play. To prevent a neo-feudal dystopia, prudent policies must curb data monopolization, privilege individual ownership over personal details, and guarantee digital neutrality. Otherwise, society risks reshaping around as rigid and inequitable a hierarchy as when fate was determined solely by ownership of the soil. A data cartel should not supplant land barons unopposed. Citizens must reclaim sovereignty over their online identities to head off digital neo-feudalism.
Below are some potential consequences of data monopolization and lack of digital neutrality:
- Loss of privacy and agency over personal information. With monopolized data stores, individuals have little control over how their data is collected, merged, analyzed and used.
Filtered or manipulated information ecosystem. Data monopolists can prioritize information exposure based on what benefits their business interests rather than open access to diverse ideas and facts.
- Dominance of a few corporate gatekeepers. Without net neutrality and data ownership rights, online discourse and innovation become subject to the priorities of a small number of large companies.
- Entrenchment of socioeconomic inequities. Factors like geographic location, financial resources and consumer behaviours could disproportionately influence access to opportunities in a non-neutral digital system.
- Political influence and lack of oversight. Data monopolies accrue outsized lobbying power that can undermine regulation to protect privacy, competition and civil discourse online.
Stifled startups and competition. It’s difficult for new innovators to emerge when data collection and usage are controlled by a few incumbents who can leverage their data advantages anticompetitively.
- Technological dependence. Centralized control of platforms and lack of data/digital portability leave citizens and businesses reliant on a small set of proprietary systems.
Mass behavioural manipulation. With exhaustive personal profiles and weak constraints, data could be leveraged to influence populations at scale for purposes like spreading misinformation.
Erosion of protections like net neutrality. Benefits enjoyed presently may be gradually chipped away without the vigilant defence of open principles.
Above I mentioned just some key points, so below are some ways citizens can reclaim sovereignty over their online identities:
- Demand transparency into what data is collected and how it’s used. Companies should provide simple tools for users to access, correct and delete their personal information.
- Lobby legislators to strengthen data privacy laws that enforce ownership and portability rights. Citizens should control how their data can be sold, analyzed or profiled.
- Opt out of non-essential data collection whenever possible by limiting sharing and using privacy tools/browser extensions. Companies should not make essential services contingent on excessive data collection.
- Support startup alternatives that put users and privacy first rather than data monetization. Market pressures can encourage better privacy standards.
- Educate yourself on privacy risks and your digital footprint. Increased awareness helps make more informed consent-based choices about sharing.
- Push for digital ID systems that give individuals portable, ownable credentials rather than rely on proprietary platforms.
- Back policies ensuring net neutrality and breakups of monopolistic data aggregation. Competition protects against abuses of centralized power.
- Organize around issues of digital sovereignty. A strong, coordinated voice empowers citizens to demand accountability from those currently controlling data flows.
- Leverage technology to own personal data stores that can interact transparently with online services on an individual’s terms.
- Reclaiming online autonomy requires both individual vigilance and collective action to reform policies and market incentives that now discourage sovereignty. An informed populace is critical to shift norms toward user empowerment.
Some policies that could be implemented to prevent the concentration of data and power in the hands of a few could be:
Data Portability: Laws requiring companies to make users’ data easily portable to other services upon request. This prevents lock-in and allows data aggregation competitors to emerge.
Data Ownership: Establishing in law that individuals own the rights to their personal digital information. Companies are stewards, not owners, and data has to serve user needs primarily.
Interoperability: Technical and legal standards ensure systems and data are transferable and compatible across platforms. Prevents data silos and walled gardens.
Breakups: For the largest data monopolies, splitting companies that control multiple chokepoints of the digital economy to avoid anti-competitive bundling of services.
Net Neutrality: Rules treating all online content, apps and services equally to promote open access and prevent gatekeepers from extracting rents or limiting choice.
No Data Hoarding: Limits on how much user data any single entity can amass without ongoing, verifiable consent proportional to sensitivity. Prevents abnormal concentrations.
Privacy by Design: Shifting norms and laws to require protecting individual autonomy and anonymity as core principles during development rather than after the fact.
Antitrust Enforcement: Strengthening competition watchdogs’ abilities to aggressively police anti-competitive data practices during mergers or by dominant players.
These types of regulations and reforms uphold principles of individual sovereignty, consent, competition and choice online versus monopolistic dominance over people’s digital lives.
To be continued…