Tech Firms Enslave Us?

Imagine that centuries ago a visionary had foreseen all of the following:

  1. Future people would live in modern high rise buildings.
  2. Interior high-rise apartments need elevators, mailboxes, forced air, piped water, and artificial light, to let residents exit, talk, breath, drink, and see.
  3. High-rises are expensive and require lots of coordination to manage.
  4. Large rich for-profit organizations can build and manage high-rises, and then rent apartments to residents.

Finally, imagine that this visionary concluded that high-rise residents would in essence be slaves of their rich landlords. He reasons that residents must live in mortal fear of landlords who could at any time cut off their exit, talk, light, water, and air. Facing landlords with that much power over them, surely residents must be slaves.

Of course real residents of modern high rises are not remotely slaves. Yes landlords have the physical ability to kill residents by cutting off their exit, talk, light, water, and air. But any landlord that did this would be in a world of trouble, both via losing customers, and via legal punishment. It isn’t just in some libertarian or economist’s fantasy in which market forces keep landlords from enslaving their residents – this is how it actually works in our real world.

Yet, when we look toward our future, and imagine costly techs that could extend life, many keep imagining that such techs would make us slaves of big bad rich firms. For example, see this video on the Singularity, ruined by lawyers:

Yes, this video gets credit for humor, creativity, and entertainment value. But as social criticism it seems on par with saying that high-rise landlords must enslave their residents.

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  • david3368

    Is it more legal punishment, or market forces, that protect tenants?

    • JoachimSchipper

      I’m not sure where the boundaries are on those forces, on a span of decades; but note that modern housing is e.g. *much* safer than workers’ housing during the industrial revolution. I’d argue that higher salaries and status for workers has increased their legal protections.

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  • rapscallion

    “Yes landlords can kill residents by cutting off their exit, talk, light, and air.”

    No, landlords can evict and cut off services, but they can’t directly kill their residents. The owner of a server full of EM souls, however, could presumably delete/kill any of them.

    Healthcare is the only industry where a private service provider might in some imaginable cases be able to simply kill the client–which is one of the reasons it’s so heavily regulated. It’s more the fear of the power to kill in general, not luddism, that makes people wary of future EM tech and ownership issues.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      It is only market and legal forces that prevent landlords from killing residents by taking away their exit and air. They have the physical ability to so kill

      • Bbob6082

        I don’t know what you mean. Yes, we can imagine some bizarre contracts no one would ever agree to that let landlords push a vaporize button instead of eviction, just as we can imagine librarians stipulating that if you’re late they have a right to beat you to death with the book you’ve borrowed. But no one would ever agree to those terms. Leasing, renting, and borrowing do not imply a special ability to kill.

      • John

         Robin, point me to a single landlord that, as of this day, has the technological ability to shut their tenant in a building and kill them by “taking their air”. I dare you.

      • Bobby

        The phrase “taking their air” just made me laugh.

        What does “taking their air” even mean? Choking them?  Sealing the building in plastic? Pumping in carbon dioxide? Putting the building in a huge vacuum or under water?

      • Bobby

        How does being a landlord have a special ability to kill residents by taking away their air?  A disgruntled building manager in a condo building (with no landlord) could do the same thing as a landord.  As a tenant, I could kill my landlords “by taking away their air” or maybe just shooting them.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Fear of landlords seems to have been more common in the past when they were absentee owners of a territory (on which tenants might have built a shack) rather than providers of a building. Some in the left-libertarian (Spooner, Tucker, Proudhon) tradition make anti-landlord arguments. The conservative political theorist Willmoore Kendall denounced Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism as dictatorship of the landlords.

    I think the video makes a point you neglect in that this technology, by directly accessing the brain/mental states allows for a much greater degree of control. Additionally, there are not simply market forces but hypothetical pieces of legislation being referenced. A landlord might not bother trying to intervene in their tenants lives in our world, but in this world their capacity to do so easily is obvious and legislation compels them to do so.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The level of control implied by being able to cut off your air and exit at will seems plenty high. And it should be obvious that control of enforceable legislation is sufficient to enslave people – you just pass a law saying they are slaves.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        This is a more fine-grained kind of control.

      • Bobby

        What is “cut off your air?”

  • mtraven

    This curiously misses the point completely, since all the things in that video are slight extensions/parodies of things that the software industry actually does right now, including “deleting memories” if it thinks you have installed them in illegally. 

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  • Jonas

    A better analogy is with nursing homes and not apartments buildings.  

  • http://eradica.wordpress.com/ Firepower

    We also fail to note, these science fiction fantasies extend life only to the Evil Rich – and not to the common monsters who cause Road Rage.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Banks have the ability to stack accounts with fees to increase profits at will, and yet no law is needed to stop them. They exercise self-restraint out of fear customers would immediately abandon them.

  • Geoffbrown

    Yes, companies and landlords would love to enslave their “customers”.  A few examples stick out to me. Microsoft locking companies into live or die style contracts a la the movie, cigarette companies manipulating nicotine levels to reduce their customers’ capacity to choose freely and virutally any end user agreement.

    And I can totally see a landlord killing a tenant, very Dickensian.

  • http://www.andreasmoser.wordpress.com/ Andreas Moser

    Most people are already enslaved by their phones: 
    http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/why-i-dont-answer-the-phone/ When it rings, they jump and forget about everything else.