Ownership, use, and governance on the medieval manor and today.
The prospect of Musk imposing private governance on one of the world’s most valuable and densely populated online properties has revealed the true contours of the world we have come to inhabit, in which liberal capitalism’s concepts of property and power are increasingly obsolete. A platform like Twitter resembles less a mere marketplace or publication than a feudal domain: a political-cum-economic territory ripe with opportunity for mutual benefit but also fraught with potential conflict. The inhabitants are less “users” than tenant farmers, the owners less “executives” than lords of the manor.
As we are belatedly coming to realize, such territory must be regulated—by people, not merely by economic laws or algorithms—but we have no idea how or by whom. For all its apparent futurism, the dynamics of the digital domain represent a blast from the past, which we must reckon with again if we are to craft a sustainable model for digital governance in the present. Ideas of a “new feudalism” usually take the form of complaints or accusations about rising inequality and concentrated private power, but the analogy in fact runs much deeper and can help us to better understand and navigate this strange new world.