Most days Jonathan woke up and carried out his simple monastic routine of self-study and meditation, but today was different. Today Prior Philip would take him into the city.
While most of the monks had grown weary of the city before joining the monastery, Jonathan had lived with the monks as long as he could remember. Prior Philip had found him as an abandoned newborn in the forest, just off the road that led into the monastery. He brought the infant to the church, convinced that there was a plan for him and that it was the monks’ duty to raise him as their own.
Now eighteen years later Jonathan was looking forward to leaving the small village for the first time.
Jonathan had donned his monastic robes and was ready when Prior Philip came to get him. It was a relatively short distance to the city walls by horseback and they would be there within the day.
“What do you expect to see?” Philip asked him as they began the journey.
“I really don’t know, I think I’d rather wait than attempt to guess.”
Jonathan thought of the stories he had read, tales of castles and princesses, kings, earls, and conquest. He imagined that some of these things must be true, but didn’t want to speculate.
He was not prepared for what he saw.
As they approached the city they could see enormous walls surrounding it. Jonathan noticed a guard standing near the entrance to the city. The guard was shouting, “Sign Up! Sign Up! Sign Up!” and then more quietly, “or Log In.” Philip approached and there was some quiet communication with the guard, then Jonathan walked up and was asked to fill out some documents. Shortly after, Jonathan and Philip walked in together. Once inside the city walls Jonathan saw people extending to the horizon in every direction, men, women, and children. All of them were working tirelessly on small plots of land.
“There must be millions of them.”
Philip looked at Jonathan. “Billions.”
They approached one of the small plots and Jonathan looked more closely at the serfs working the data fields. One man was tending to multiple plots simultaneously: Jonathan saw him watering a beautiful garden of tweets, and then pruning a leafy Facebook post. At the same time he noticed the knights nearby also staring at the man.
He looked at Philip and asked, “Who are they?” nodding in the direction of the knights.
“Those are the knights of Earls Zuckerberg and Dorsey. They are expert farmers employed by the earls. They watch all of the serfs and collect clippings of all of their work on the data fields to bring to the Earl’s castle.”
At that moment a small man with a determined expression walked up to the serfs’ fields with a scroll of parchment. He unrolled it and began shouting at the serfs.
“The herald of the Earl reminds you that the local baker has delicious bread on sale now!”
“Are you interested in Triplebyte? You could become a knight and change your life!”
“Our mighty king reminds you he is the greatest king we’ve ever had!”
Jonathan was waiting for the herald to stop with his pronouncements so he could speak again, but the herald continued.
“Meet single serfs in your relative location!”
Jonathan looked at Philip and decided to try to just ignore the herald.
Philip had been watching Jonathan take it all in - he wanted him to see it for himself without any context for the first time. He led Jonathan away from the herald’s shouting so they could speak more easily.
Philip looked at Jonathan, “There was a time long ago when there were no earls, or heralds, when the data fields were worked by skilled farmers and craftsmen. What they built was their own.”
“In those days it was difficult to prepare a field for data farming. It required a dedicated farmer interested in the art of farming itself. There was more creativity, but there were also fewer people and fewer farms. It was then that some enterprising young farmers hatched a plan. They realized that if they did the hard work of preparing the fields they could get everyone to farm, not just the experts. They cultivated enormous swaths of land and gave it away to the serfs in exchange for clippings of what they grow on their data farms as well as requiring them to hear the herald’s pronouncements.”
Jonathan thought about this for a while.
“That sounds like a good thing? Many serfs had no farms at all and now they all have at least one. They all can participate in growing their own beautiful data and they only need to share clippings of it with the Earl and listen to some announcements - that seems fair to me.”
“Many thought the same when they first learned of it, but as more began to farm, unexpected things started to happen.”
Philip pointed to one of the nearby plots. Jonathan watched some of the growing tweets. One was particularly beautiful, brightly colored, pleasant and happy. It shone briefly and then withered and died. The next row over, he saw an angry-looking thorny retweet with comment.
The knights ran over to the retweet filled with excitement. “This one is perfect,” they exclaimed, and grabbed clippings of it and began to spread it to all of the nearby data farms.
Jonathan looked at Philip, confused, and asked, “Why are they doing this?”
“In the beginning not everyone tended to their free data farms. Many did not know what to do with them, some only planted one or two tweets and then abandoned them entirely. This disappointed the earls of our kingdom. If they don’t encourage growth, their share of the data harvest is smaller, there’s no one to hear their pronouncements, and all of the land they spent time cultivating is wasted. They realized that not only do they need to make the land easy to cultivate, but they need to make the serfs want to cultivate it. They experimented for a while and learned that new types of controversial, viciously competitive crops are great for encouraging data farming - they call this type of encouragement ‘engagement’.”
Jonathan was skeptical. “If there’s too much controversy won’t people leave the earldom entirely?”
Philip replied, “I would have thought so, but it seems the opposite is true - controversy encourages more to join the data farms. The earls do now attempt to stop some of the most invasive and harmful crops, but now even that creates controversy so it no longer negatively affects engagement.”
“What is done with the data from the harvest?” Jonathan asked.
“The earls collect all of it and then sell announcements to the king and wealthy merchants. They target these announcements to serfs based on their data harvest.” Philip replied.
“What kind of announcements?”
“They can be anything, mostly they’re merchants selling services, sometimes they are messages from the king. One of the main concerns today is that many messages are lies from enemy kingdoms, but now there are even lies from our own king.”
“Why do they allow lies from enemy kingdoms?”
“There are so many farms and so many pronouncements, it’s hard to check all of them first.”
“Why allow lies from our own king?”
“Well, he is the king.”
Jonathan thought for a moment, “Do the serfs ignore these pronouncements? It looks like they’re not paying much attention to them.”
“Many of the serfs think they are unaffected by the pronouncements, but they are all affected. That’s why the data harvest is so valuable to the earls. The pronouncements and engagement have led to serfs sharing lies, friends have become enemies, even mobs have broken out in violence. The knights are incentivized to fan the flames to keep the serfs farming and confusion and misunderstanding is everywhere. Tyrant kings use pronouncements to control their people and spread lies in enemy kingdoms.”
Jonathan thought about this for a while. He was glad at least their earls were mostly benevolent, but wondered what would happen if new earls took over. As he was thinking, he noticed one of the farming serfs sit down to rest. The knights nearby whispered nervously to each other, then surreptitiously threw a few small likes at the feet of the serf. Newly invigorated, the serf began to work again and the knights were pleased.
Jonathan looked upset. “Why do the knights support this work? They are skilled farmers, couldn’t they tend their own land?”
“The earls offer the knights a comfortable life, high salary, and pleasant work (though curiously poor housing). Life outside the earldom is uncertain and difficult.”
“Do no knights strike out on their own?”
Philip was quiet for a moment. He pointed across a vast vista to a large castle in the distance adjacent to that of their own Earl Zuckerberg’s. “That is the castle of Sir Brian Acton of the former Earldom of WhatsApp. Sir Acton was an idealistic farmer who rejected the ways of our earl. He promised the serfs he would take no part of their data harvest they produced from the land he provided them, and instead the serfs even paid him a small cash fee for his protection. He had no knights to watch and report on his people and no heralds spreading pronouncements.”
“He was too successful. Earl Zuckerberg saw many of his serfs begin to leave his lands to work the lands of Sir Acton (at the time he was known as Farmer Acton). This was a risk to the power of Zuckerberg’s earldom, since an earl without serfs to tend to the data fields has no harvest to interest others. In the end he offered Sir Acton a knightship and such enormous wealth that he could not refuse. It’s said he now lives in that vast castle alone, is rarely seen, and rarely speaks. The serfs that were in agreement with him now belong to Earl Zuckerberg as they had before, their deal was broken, and once again they tend to our earl’s data harvest.”
“Are there no others?”
“Sir Acton was just the most noble, and his fall the most tragic. Others like Sir Chris Coyne of the former Earldom of Keybase promised their serfs protection and then cruelly sold them to the Earldom of Zoom, which is closely tied to the Eastern Kingdom, a hostile land ruled by a tyrant king where the earls are weak and only serve to do the king’s bidding. There the serfs are forced to grow only what the king has allowed and serfs that refuse are dealt with swiftly and harshly. While in our kingdom farmers can choose to try to strike out on their own (though most choose not to), in the Earldoms of Zoom or TikTok, nothing can happen without the blessing of their king.”
Jonathan was looking around while he was thinking. He noticed a small group outside the castle walls using catapults and trebuchets to hurl stones in what looked like an attempted siege. The stones looked impressive to Jonathan, but they shattered harmlessly against the castle’s sturdy walls. They held colorful flags and banners bearing the names, “Vox,” “NYT,” “Vice,” and others, and shouted at anyone that came near.
Jonathan pointed at the small group. “Are those people trying to make things better for the serfs?”
Philip smiled and said, “Those laying siege are the former earls of this kingdom. During their reign the serfs had no land of their own and only a small nobility was allowed to participate in the farming. Today, many of their best men and women have left after their wealth was devastated as our current earl rose to power. The few that continue to lay siege maintain their sense of righteous nobility without the capability to justify it. In addition to the siege, they have ambassadors attempting to curry favor with the king’s men. They wish for them to throw out the new earls so they may reclaim the earldom. Some even defend the cruelty of the Earldom of TikTok of the Eastern Kingdom just to spite our earl. They were different during their reign - at least then they worked to seek out objective truth to push back against the king in service of the serfs. Today, after losing many of their best, most of those that remain are more interested in rallying mobs to drive controversy for their own survival. Their hatred of our earl corrupts their judgment and their own desperate struggle to survive means they are not in a position to help even if they wanted to. They’d see any other independent groups as a threat to what little they have left.”
At that moment Jonathan saw the fallen nobility lay down their arms and walk a few feet to pick up plows and shovels. They began to farm. Jonathan was surprised. “Why are they tending the lands of our new Earl Zuckerberg and Earl Dorsey if they see them as the enemy?”
“They do so bitterly. The merchants they used to sell pronouncements to now buy from our earls instead, so the old guard must tend the lands of our new lords if they wish to exist at all. They lay a futile siege against the castle and attempt to rally serfs to their cause because the controversy drives their own engagement, but they are largely not effective. Now that the serfs have their own land to work alongside the old earls and can farm with other serfs, they realize that many of the old earls didn’t know as much as they pretended to. Today all serfs can farm and while many farm nonsense, some grow blogs more beautiful than the old earls ever did. It is these serfs we must seek to protect. I believe we can also help the few respectable nobles of the old guard that have not yet left or been driven out.”
Philip turned to Jonathan and said, “That’s why I’ve brought you here Jonathan. I think you were brought to us to help the serfs of our kingdom. As monks we serve a greater purpose.”
Jonathan looked back at Philip. “God?” he asked.
Philip gave Jonathan a surprised look and said, “What? No. Free society.”
Jonathan was not very confident. “How can I help them? If I’m successful I’ll be pressured to sell just like Sir Acton.”
“Sir Acton’s mistake was to give the serfs access to his land instead of helping them tend their own. Others have made different mistakes - the Mastodon village focuses on sophisticated tools for the farmers, but then leaves them to figure out how to tend the land themselves. Still others like the Earldoms of Snap and Medium have refused to sell to Earl Zuckerberg or Earl Dorsey, but only out of their own greed to create a competing earldom with their own data harvest and knights. There is another small monastic community of the Urbit church that may be interesting in the future, but today they live cloistered away from the rest of the world. Still, I believe there is another way.”
Prior Philip led Jonathan back to where they stabled their horses. They mounted up and rode outside of the castle walls. Philip rode next to Jonathan.
Philip said, “I’m taking you to a small place where there are no serfs, only free men and women.”
They approached a small village and found houses without a castle wall, without earls, or knights, being worked on by the people themselves. Preet Bharara was there, along with his friend Anne Milgram. Sam Harris, Ben Thompson, Yascha Mounk, and Benedict Evans could also be seen working on their houses.
As they neared the village Philip explained, “By having their own houses they can spend the time to create more complex and nuanced gardens, all without pressure from merchants and heralds. They are supported by others that value their work on its own merits and not for the amount of people that it can attract to hear pronouncements. And while mobs may complain to the earl and demand those that support the cottage industry be destroyed, he has no power to take their land from them because it is outside of his realm.”
Philip looked at Jonathan and said, “Some craftsmen still own their own land away from the earls, but it is hard work. A better system would make this as easy as our own enterprising earl did for the serfs, but instead of letting the serfs use our land with a benevolent promise as Sir Acton did, we sell the ownership of the land to the serfs and prepare it for them. They are the earls of their own land and we are the serfs for hire. We can’t be bought because they own all the land.”
Jonathan looked around at the industrious free people working on their own houses and gardens. He exclaimed, “This is incredible, but it looks like it’s at least twice as much work.”
Jonathan thought for a moment. “I think I understand: we make it easy for them to own their own server, their own domain, their own blog, and we just run it for them. If they stop wanting us to run it then we transfer it over to them. But that’s not enough. What about their families? What about engagement? People like the earldom in spite of the knights and heralds because everyone else is already there. These houses are impressive, but they’re still relatively isolated.”
Philip smiled. “You’re right, it isn’t enough to just give them a server in isolation. You need to build a community, and you have to do it by focusing on one specific need first. Blogging communities, newsletters, subscriptions, matrix, and RSS are a start - even here there’s a new village called Substack and Yascha Mounk remains a serf working for what is only currently a benevolent farmer. Yascha has been using it to start the community, but Substack is doing it in the way of Medium where they own the service - this will not be good long term. You could help set him and the other users free. You’ll need to figure out how to help those in their own villages find each other without a common city, and how they’ll be able to have a community together free from earls.”
Philip continued, “Your users will still likely have farms in the existing earldoms as well as their own houses outside of the city, but maybe they will create roads to their own houses from those farms. You won’t be able to get all of the families to join right away, and many may not want to join once the influence of knights pushing engagement is taken away, but that’s okay. There are also those (particularly many of the Instagram farmers) that have amassed enormous gardens within the earldoms entirely to enjoy the envy of other serfs - they won’t want to leave. There are still others that have curated gardens for a long while within the city walls and will find it hard to leave. Our focus is on those that both have something to grow and recognize the importance of having control of the garden in which they grow it, but they find the land too difficult to prepare on their own.
“If you succeed, Earl Zuckerberg won’t be able to buy you, the Eastern Kingdom won’t be able to pressure you to shut down, and you’ll be able to elevate the most knowledgeable serfs, perhaps even some of the earls from the old kingdom.”
Jonathan looked at the small village.
Jonathan saw a smiling Preet and Anne. Sam Harris waved in his direction and even Yascha Mounk looked happy. He thought of the serfs within the city walls currently farming all day and night under the persistent stare and influence of the knights, listening to the relentless shouting of the heralds. He thought of Sir Brian Acton alone in his castle. He thought of all of the serfs in the prisons of the tyrant king and the arguing amongst earls about who should own the serfs and what they should be allowed to grow.
He saw a future of free society and open discussion in a decentralized community, where people controlled their own farms and their own data away from the knights pushing controversy.
It wouldn’t be easy, but it was the future he wanted to help them build.
The wonderful illustrations (and general editing) for this post were done by Clara Takahashi of the Obscure Dinosaur Facts blog.