Self Custody: Relinquishing Echoes of the Feudal System
In the annals of history, the feudal system stands out as a period where personal ownership was more a matter of allegiance than autonomy.
Feudalism dominated medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries, and was centered around a strict social hierarchy. Peasants and serfs occupied the bottom rungs, forced to live and work on land owned by feudal lords. In return for toiling on the lord’s estate, serfs were granted basic protection and the right to subsistence living. The serfs owned neither the land they cultivated nor the fruits of their labor. The feudal contract was one of allegiance rather than autonomy or ownership.
“The serf is a man without rights, a chattel without a soul.” — Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace
The parallels to today’s digital landscape ring uncannily accurate. While the context is different, the core dynamic of large entities — exerting control over users’ digital lives — mirrors the manorial relationship between lord and serf.
- Twitter’s 2021 ban of former US President Donald Trump, severing his direct line to over 80 million followers due to policy violations.
- Ebooks vanish without notice, as Amazon customers learned when in 2015 Orwell classics like 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from Kindles amidst a rights dispute.
- Even virtual possessions like in-game assets are at risk. Vitalik Buterin learned the hard way that his virtual axes and armor in World of Warcraft could disappear overnight thanks to the developer’s EULA.
For today’s internet users, digital life often feels less like ownership and more like tenancy, corporate gatekeepers and centralized servers hold the keys. Just as serfs produced value for estates they did not own, we today lack real ownership over our data and what happens to it.