The Internet of Landlords: Digital Enclosure and Rentier Capitalism

Authors: Jathan Sadowski*, The University of Sydney
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: digital platforms; smart cities; rentier capitalism; urban governance
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Palladian, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper analyses how two trends in digital technology are laying the groundwork for the expansion of enclosure and rentiers in modern society. First, the Internet of Things aims to embed software, data collection, and network connections into objects ranging from trash cans to tractors. The companies creating these “smart” devices claim ownership over the software that has become necessary for their operation. The physical thing is bought, but the digital software is only licensed. Second, digital platforms are increasingly a form of critical infrastructure that mediates social interactions and economic transactions. As nascent work on “platform urbanism” shows, platforms are converging on cities and reconfiguring the governance and production of urban space. By turning everyday activities into “services” that take place on their platform, tech companies can create opportunities for extracting value from people and space.

Both of these trends are enacting a shift away from owning property and toward renting services. Companies now reserve the right to collect rent from, control the use of, and revoke access to smart things/platforms. The personal data we continuously produce by using smart things/platforms—in addition to regular payments for premium subscriptions—thus constitutes a stream of income for this new wave of rentiers. We can see the history of enclosure repeating itself, but instead of demanding rent for access to landed property, these rentiers capture revenue from the digital enclosure of physical objects and social interactions. Through these two trends, companies are staking claims and filling society with walled gardens.

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