Cloud products, usury, and the death of property

February 20, 2017 § 41 Comments

Human beings used to be reasonably capable of distinguishing reality from imagination, at least in the boots-on-the-ground world of day to day life.  Property at one time referred to something real, something which exists in its own right. Thus property could be possessed, repossessed, bought, sold, stolen, consumed, or destroyed independent of the property’s owner or of any other particular persons.

Human beings and possessions were understood to be different things, with the notable – but at least clearly delineated – exception of economic chattel slavery, not to be confused with prison.

Then along came widespread acceptance of usury. Liberal modernity counts, as one of its crowning achievements, the destruction of chattel slavery.  As with all of liberalism’s putative emancipatory achievements, this is illusory.  Rather than freeing humanity from the objectification inherent in chattel slavery, liberalism has merely driven this objectification into the subcutaneous socioeconomic metalayer, implanted it under the skin, making it that much more difficult to see and resist.  As always liberalism does not actually “free” us from authority as it pretends to do: it simply makes authority sociopathic.

The old tyrannies could at least be seen out in the open. A man knew where he stood. Now the tyranny comes cloaked as the seductress “freedom”. Liberal tyranny boils up from under layers of flesh, lurks inside clinging to the bones as it gnaws away at internal organs and releases its offal into the body. If paganism, Mohammedism, and Rabbinic Judaism are packs of hyenas harrowing Christendom, liberalism is a cancer that eats away at it from within, an alien embryo feeding on its host as it releases a thousand horrors.

But I digress.

Property is objective[1], that is, it consists of objects independent of any particular human subject or subjects.  Owners are human subjects, human beings independent of any particular property. Take away a man’s property and you still have a man.

You can tell who truly owns what by asking what happens when the music stops: by asking what, at the end of the day, secures each person’s claims. In a recourse mortgage the borrower “owns” the house and the lender owns the borrower, because the lender is contractually entitled to collect deficiencies from the borrower if selling the house does not fully discharge the borrower’s contractual obligations.  The situation is even worse than that though, because in the case of taxable real estate the sovereign really owns the property and leases it back to the tenant (whom we deceptively label the “owner”).  Real estate “owners”, then, don’t really own the actual property. The sovereign owns the property and what the “owners” really own is exclusive leasing rights: a kind of financial security.  That isn’t nothing, but there is much less there than meets the eye. Real estate “ownership” where there are property taxes is a form of lie: what is owned is not land and buildings, but a perpetual[2] and exclusive lease on land and buildings.

Products dependent upon cloud software represent a new, technologically enabled phase in non-ownership “ownership”.  Cloud software or “Internet of things” products require a “mother ship” somewhere on the Internet in order to work. Without the mother ship they become literally useless; “bricked” in the vernacular. For example you can spend years of your life producing work with a cloud based – or even just cloud licensed – CAD program, under the illusion that you own at least your own actual work product. You don’t own the software, it is merely ‘licensed’ to you, sure.  But in fact you don’t even really own your own work product which you produced with the software using your own hands and mind, because you cannot even continue to access your own work without regularly checking in with the mother ship to ensure that license terms are met . If the terms and conditions change, or the company goes out of business or the mother ship crashes for some other reason, you can’t even access the features of your own “property”; not even your own accumulated work.

Cloud products represent a kind of legalized ransomware.  As with usury there is a superficial resemblance to legitimate transactions; in this case a resemblance to having sold or leased you some tools with which you can produce your own  work; work which you then own. The work you produce with cloud-based ransomware looks like it belongs to you.

But when the music stops your hammer no longer works, there are no other hammers which will work, and all that you have built with the hammer is hostage to the true owner’s terms and conditions.  You were never the owner of your own work product in the first place: you rent your own work at the pleasure of the private party who really owns it.

When philosophical anti-realism invades the domain of property, the distinction between persons and property disappears.  This erodes the distinction between persons and objects in spheres beyond property and ownership.

If you would like to see the great dehumanization reversed, I can’t really offer much hope. But I’d be happy to hand you a shovel.


[1] Nota bene: not physical or merely physical, since physicalism is false.

[2] At least for as long as the tenant continues to make payments, which can be increased at any time without his agreement.

§ 41 Responses to Cloud products, usury, and the death of property

  • Terry Morris says:

    Glad you added note [2]. I was about to mention it in a comment until I saw it in the footnotes (I had read past it in the O.P.).

  • donnie says:

    So the owner of the cloud infrastructure is the true owner of all software inventions dependent on his cloud, in the same way that the sovereign is the true owner of all taxable property.

    But this is not intrinsically immoral is it? The cloud owner doesn’t own the software inventor in the same way that a usurer owns a borrower, he simply owns the software itself. The immoral part is that society is committed to covering up this truth.

    Or am I missing something?

  • Zippy says:

    donnie:

    Tentatively, he own’s the worker’s work product, which he has taken under subterfuge without agreed compensation. It is more a form of theft (as is depriving the worker of just wages more generally) than a form of usury.

    A thief takes possession of that which does not belong to him in justice.

  • Zippy says:

    Rather than selling what does not exist, that is, ransomware (legal under the positive law or not) is a form of selling a man something which he already owns.

  • donnie says:

    I don’t understand this.

    Let’s say I work for Oracle and design a software platform that runs off of their cloud based infrastructure. Because I am an employee of Oracle, they own my work. There is nothing immoral about this arrangement so long as Oracle is paying me a just wage.

    But if I don’t work for Oracle and I invent the same software platform on my own, I ought to be able to own this software. But as you argue, I can’t, because the software is entirely dependent on Oracle’s cloud. Oracle effectively holds my invention ransom and only allows me to access it if I adhere to their terms.

    But is this really Oracle’s fault? I am the one who designed the software to be dependent on Oracle’s cloud infrastructure. If Oracle decides to shut down its cloud tomorrow and my software becomes worthless, that’s a risk I bear. It seems odd to say that Oracle owes me compensation for developing something that they now effectively own, but that they may not want or even care about.

  • Zippy says:

    donnie:

    Stop thinking about your own example: it is clouding the point, no pun intended.

    Imagine that you are a designer and machinist using Autodesk Fusion 360: the desktop version with cloud licensing. You spend years of your life learning the tools, designing stuff, and making projects for clients.

    Then Adobe turns off the cloud for their own reasons — maybe they even went bankrupt. Suddenly all of the stuff you’ve worked on for years is no longer accessible: even though you have all of the physical files, you no longer have any software to open them. You still have the desktop software but it won’t run, because the cloud license has gone away.

    It is as if Microsoft Word could virtually shred all of the documents you have amassed over the years by turning off (or changing the terms of) the Office licensing.

    Now you can say that this is what people agree to when they click “agree” on the legal terms they don’t understand which pertains to the software architectures that they also don’t understand; and there may be some merit to that argument. People really just shouldn’t do business with these companies, just like white women shouldn’t walk down Martin Luther King avenue in a miniskirt.

    But it is far from obvious that the cloud companies (software and otherwise) are off the hook morally just because someone clicked “agree” when purchasing their product.

  • Leiff says:

    Exactly. If Amazon’s AWS or MS Azure goes dark for whatever reason, you’re basically SOL.

  • Hrodgar says:

    The link “cloaked as the seductress freedom” doesn’t go anywhere.

    [Fixed it, thanks. –Z]

  • donnie says:

    Ah, that makes more sense. It wasn’t clear to me that this is what you were referring to in the OP.

    Still, it’s not entirely clear to me that the cloud companies in question are doing anything intrinsically wrong here. All the work that we ever produce in our lives is entirely dependent on the “cloud infrastructure” we call reality, owned by God. If God decides to pull the plug on the universe tomorrow, all the work we spent our lives building will be gone in an instant. And none of us here would dare to claim that there is anything wrong with this.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, but you see where I’m coming from.

  • Zippy says:

    donnie:

    All the work that we ever produce in our lives is entirely dependent on the “cloud infrastructure” we call reality, owned by God.

    We can’t accuse God of stealing, because everything is already His. It does not follow that therefore stealing isn’t intrinsically wrong.

    More generally, it seems to me that you are changing the subject as opposed to saying something pertinent to the subject.

  • donnie says:

    What I’m asking is, if you produce something that is dependent upon the cloud, can we really accuse the cloud owner of stealing what is yours? In a manner analogous to the fact that God owns everything, couldn’t it be argued that the cloud owner owns everything dependent upon the cloud? The cloud owner can’t steal it if it isn’t actually yours.

  • Zippy says:

    donnie:

    I think the general answer can only be “it depends”. I think it is pretty clear that in some cases the cloud is there to steal your work product and force you to rent your own work product back from the thief. In other cases it is there specifically to prevent you from deriving value from your property without paying and increasing your dependence upon a rent-seeking cloud company.

    It doesn’t follow that all cloud products do this in all cases. The suggestion isn’t “all cloud products are immoral”. The suggestion is that some structures are immoral, such as the labor theft through cloud licensing example I just gave you (other sorts of examples can be given).

    At a higher level, the OP is suggesting that we are entering a new phase of anti-realism about property, a component of which is the “possession is 9/10 the law” power play being made by many cloud companies.

  • Oh, amen to this post. All of it.

    I’m reminded of the actresses that stored their embarrassing photos in the cloud and were shocked when they were hacked. It was somewhat comical in the sense of how quickly we hand over our privacy, our property rights, and then suddenly demand to have them back when we realize having no property rights also means having no control over our own property. Like, duh.

    We can translate that into human relationships too, “property” in it’s gentlest sense, as in the protection and provision of family, ownership over your kids, commitment to your spouse, autonomy over your business. Then there is the way we are all God’s property. These natural relationships have now been usurped, so we are all in the cloud now, people paying property taxes, on lease from the State, hoping their benevolence doesn’t fail us, because we have little or no recourse if it does.

    Property rights, they run deep, lots of layers to that one.

  • TomD says:

    Some people recognize this, and fight for open file-formats; EPS instead of AI, for example.

    If alternative software can open the files, you’re not completely at the mercy of the software renter, your things still are usable if the software fails.

    I’d say it’s not as directly immoral as usury, but more like renting you a special DVD player almost permanently; you end up buying many special DVDs which you use with it, and then one day I cancel the rental contract. You now have many DVDs that are unusable because they only work with my player (see- DivX).

    As long as alternative methods are available, it reduces the problem.

    (This blog is an example; they could cut you off at any moment, but it’s easy to export the content which is the valuable part, really. Also, I am going to send your Usury ebook around to some people I know, some of them high-ranking. Beware the inquisition! 😉 )

  • TomD says:

    An old-time example would be renting you land for you to farm, and you buy a decent amount of farm equipment based on the long-term rental which has been renewed every year; then I sell the land and the new owner doesn’t want to rent to you for whatever reason – you now have kinda worthless farm equipment (but at least it can be sold, perhaps to the new user).

    The snake in the grass with cloud software is that the danger is hidden, like a snake in the gras, as it were.

    Another thing I notice is that more and more people are being treated as “business entities” – leasing, lending, software renting, these things make sense for businesses but usually don’t for individuals, but they are presented as to appear desirable (how many people leave their car parked for half the year because they don’t want to go over on their lease miles?).

  • At a higher level, the OP is suggesting that we are entering a new phase of anti-realism about property, a component of which is the “possession is 9/10 the law” power play being made by many cloud companies.

    It’s much worse than that. The people who get screwed over still have possession of everything they need, the companies just claim a right to indefinitely prohibit them from using it.

    I’d say it’s not as directly immoral as usury, but more like renting you a special DVD player almost permanently

    If I rent a special DVD player out to you, I am deprived of it for as long as you have it. If I let you download software from my computer to yours (stipulating that you are the owner of the computer), that only deprives me of the use of my property for the short length of time in which the download is occurring (and then only slightly).

  • Mr. Green says:

    As always, the trouble with reality is that it isn’t interested in dumbing itself down to fit our simplistic ideas of how it ought to be. But in this case I don’t think it is correct to say that one does not own one’s work-product; the product is still there and as accessible as it ever was — it’s just not very useful now. That’s not like shredding documents — a shredded document no longer exists — but rather it is like not being able to use a document that is still quite real because you’re illiterate and had the document produced by a secretary you hired to write down your ideas who has now sadly kicked the bucket. (Let us suppose the secretary invented his own personal shorthand, so you cannot simply hire someone else to read the documents to you.)

    Of course, that is not to say that there is nothing wrong with this kind of setup; like Donnie, I just don’t think that this captures the problem in quite the right way.

  • “That’s not like shredding documents — a shredded document no longer exists — but rather it is like not being able to use a document that is still quite real because you’re illiterate and had the document produced by a secretary you hired to write down your ideas who has now sadly kicked the bucket.”

    Honestly, I don’t understand this line of reasoning either of you are trying to put forth. If your secretary kicks the bucket, you’ve just lost your property for all intents and purposes. It is no longer accessible to you, it lacks availability, it is not really “yours” in the sense that you can no longer use it.

    To me the issue is a bit more like plagiarism, if you wrote an article and someone snagged a copy and published it, you don’t just say “So what, you still own your property, the original copy still exists.” Of course, we’re living in a world that hardly recognizes physical property rights, so intellectual property rights are going to really confuse people.

  • Zippy says:

    The OP was intended as general musing not an argument, and more on the general trend of “ownership” losing its basis in reality than on particular scenarios as examples.

    Here is something more resembling an argument, on the specific scenario: locally installed CAD software which is fully functional, with proprietary data formats, which runs happily while its cloud counterparty is there but disables itself if it fails to get permission from the cloud to run. IOW the only function of the cloud is to grant the software permission to run, not as a one time purchase but on an ongoing basis. None of your own work product is accessible without the software (proprietary format).

    Premise 1) Mutual consent does not make usury morally licit.

    Premise 2) Ransomware – a computer virus which “locks up” a person’s own work product and makes it inaccessible unless the victim pays the ransom – is morally illicit.

    From premise 1, mutual consent is insufficient in itself to establish moral liciety.

    Therefore, consent to a ransomware arrangement is insufficient to establish its moral liciety. Clicking “agree” doesn’t in itself change a morally illicit arrangement into a morally licit arrangement.

    So if we are to conclude that a particular ransomware arrangement is morally licit, that will require some additional justification.

    Just wait until the day that starting your car or opening the front door of your house requires – cannot be done without – permission from the cloud.

    Relevant:
    https://www.wired.com/2016/04/nests-hub-shutdown-proves-youre-crazy-buy-internet-things/

  • Dystopia Max says:

    Cloud hardware always made sense for people who didn’t have the time or money to set up a local server network. Cloud SOFTWARE is usually everything you describe and worse.

    But it is not the materials, it is the MINDSET that calls up the demons you decry:

    https://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2016/06/15/the-disruption-algorithm/

    https://mpcdot.com/forums/topic/1939-a-guide-to-the-managerial-revolution/page__st__120#entry329674

  • Zippy says:

    Dystopia Max:

    Cloud hardware always made sense for people who didn’t have the time or money to set up a local server network.

    Back in the paleozoic we did this with colocation: rather than bringing high speed Internet (which was very expensive at the time) to the server, we would locate the server where there was high speed Internet which could be shared among many servers. One of many things we did on our own initiative before there were any commercial offerings. In 1995 (or maybe ’94) I talked a local ISP into letting me put a small Linux box in their office, where I could piggyback on their T1 line for a monthly rent. It had a POTS controlled power switch that would let me restart it remotely if something went wrong, which it sometimes did. I was a few thousand miles away but I did have someone local who could go physically on site if necessary.

    Of course these days a “server” is just a bunch of software running in a virtualization environment. I run a bunch of VMs on hardware sitting in my house, and one of them is an open source VOIP phone system which could easily power a whole call center. Plus ça change and all that.

    Those were decent articles, especially the first one. As a discrete phase model it probably oversimplifies things, but it is certainly true that the people selling tech are optimizing for maximum revenues and maximum dependency. They aren’t really (whatever stories they tell themselves) selling goods for a price, except in the same sense that corner boys hawking crystal meth are selling “goods” for a price.

  • Mr. Green says:

    Insanitybytes22: If your secretary kicks the bucket, you’ve just lost your property for all intents and purposes. It is no longer accessible to you, it lacks availability, it is not really “yours” in the sense that you can no longer use it.

    For “all intents and purposes” just means that some of the effects are similar, not that dying actually is a form of theft. In your anguish, you might rhetorically liken one to the other, but I think these issues are poorly understood (if at all), and it’s worth trying to figure out what is really going on in such cases.

    Of course, we’re living in a world that hardly recognizes physical property rights, so intellectual property rights are going to really confuse people.

    Intellectual “property” is in some ways like physical property (which is how it got the name); but of course in other ways it is not like physical property at all, to the extent that many people consider the label a deceptive misnomer. Again, it’s worth thinking through these issues carefully.

  • Mr. Green says:

    Zippy: So if we are to conclude that a particular ransomware arrangement is morally licit, that will require some additional justification.

    Yes. Of course “consented ransom” seems to be an oxymoron, like “consented abduction” (which isn’t abduction at all, it’s just getting a lift). But presumably the term “ransomware” is only colourfully descriptive rather than definitive in this scenario, so to quibble would be overly pedantic. A more serious concern is equating the situation with the CAD software to ransom in the first place (the victim in the original case didn’t mention continued payment — my guess is it’s some kind of anti-copying scheme — but the situation as given here supposes that the purpose is charge ongoing fees): lots of things require ongoing payments for lots of reasons. I don’t think we have enough details to decide whether such an arrangement could be reasonable or not.

    Just wait until the day that starting your car or opening the front door of your house requires – cannot be done without – permission from the cloud.

    I can start it as I like, but driving it off my property already requires permission from a nebulous governmental department, so the concept isn’t completely unprecedented. As for Nest’s homely hub, that’s only one example of an Internetty thing — there are of course other things that can take advantage of an Internet connection but work perfectly well without some centralised service, or without the Internet at all. This is also nothing new: my Betamax VCR isn’t very useful nowadays either, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

  • Zippy says:

    Mr. Green:

    FWIW we had the beginning of a discussion on IP here. Just a beginning, obviously.

    My own (tentative, as with the present subject) view is that as an exclusive license to sell categories or kinds of products in sovereign marketplaces, IP is not intrinsically immoral. Disney selling or even just granting Starbucks an exclusive license to sell coffee in Disneyland is not intrinsically immoral.

    IP also passes the ‘alienable’ criteria of actual property (as opposed to things which may be ‘real’ in some sense but which cannot be property because they are not alienable from particular persons, e.g. “the time value of money” as an abstraction divorced from particular, actual, alienable property). An exclusive license to sell in particular markets can be thought of as a kind of security issued by the owner of those markets, against the balance sheet of the owner of those markets.

    Of course (as with non-usurious contracts) “not intrinsically immoral” doesn’t imply “morally licit in all cases”.

    And some understandings of IP and how it is enforced cannot be construed as a license to sell. For example giving away a digital copy of something is not a sale, so if IP is a license to sell in particular markets its exclusivity cannot apply to individuals giving each other digital copies of things qua gift, for no consideration other than personal friendship or what have you.

    So I think it is reasonably clear that some modern IP practices are probably morally OK, and that many are probably not.

    As with the present (related) subject though this is just the beginning of a discussion, not the end of one.

  • Zippy says:

    Mr Green:

    This is also nothing new: my Betamax VCR isn’t very useful nowadays either, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

    Your Betamax though isn’t designed to self destruct if Sony decides it wants it to go away. I still have 8mm tapes and a player that work fine.

  • Mike T says:

    The cloud breaks down into three levels at this point:

    1. Infrastructure for rent.
    2. Mixing products with cloud/local mode features that allow varying degrees of usefulness and functionality when offline.
    3. Products that exist only “in the cloud.”

    The first one really has no more moral problems than a stock brokerage does and access to your data in the event of a default could be covered under bankruptcy laws (ex. liquidation of assets cannot happen until customers have 90 days to gracefully remove their data from the service).

    The second and third depend on the specifics of the implementation. For example, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Google purging your data from Drive and Docs when you stop paying for them. Most of Zippy’s concerns can be alleviated by a cloud provider of the third type adopting open standards and having a robust process for moving data in and out.

    With that said, I think there are very serious problems the software for rent model and the trajectory of IP law. The biggest one of which is that we are moving toward an anti-ownership society. For example, car companies are now asserting that you have nothing more than an implied perpetual license to use the software that runs your car. One implication of that is that if there turns out to be literally a fatal flaw in your car’s software after support ceases, you have no right to repair your car. None.

  • Mike T says:

    donnie,

    Everything you said about Oracle can be answered by a simple observation: all problems with Oracle exist because no executive’s compensation package was used as the funding source for paying fines after an audit from Oracle.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    Agreed, though the second type has basically the same problematic elements as the third — even when the cloud is just there to enforce a recurrent license.

  • TomD says:

    The morality of using questionable sites/services to bypass authentication on a product you purchased is left to the reader (abandonware, etc).

  • Advenedizo says:

    As i read today in a t-shirt

    The cloud does not exist, it is somebody else’s computer.

  • GJ says:

    Sociopathic neo-serfdom coming right up to liberal society.

  • Mike T says:

    The cloud will likely never have its claws into society the way usury does at present. There are serious problems with some of the variations described here and they’ll likely never be resolved to customer satisfaction in the mainstream. Sure, Adobe might get away with its licensing model, but home users will never accept an OS that requires a credit card bill every month to run.

  • Zippy says:

    A lot of products require perpetual backend server support, but have a one-time-sale revenue model. This is inherently unsustainable long term, but it is the only way to get customers.

    I think people will tolerate – are tolerating – more and more core functionality in the cloud.

    And if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.

  • TomD says:

    And if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.

    Now Mass makes sense!

  • JT says:

    [Note: just fished this out of SPAM on 3/4 — Z]

    Zippy, there are many things “in the cloud” that don’t self-destruct on deactivation, so it may be clearer in future posts to point out this specific behavior.

    The subscription-based use of software is like renting a tool. A software company can’t afford to keep supporting a tool continuously without a revenue stream, and I think the subscription based model makes sense for some software. Otherwise you have to keep coming up with new models to sell for no reason (Quicken 2003, 2004 etc.) and customers won’t buy it. What you are really buying as a customer is support for the program.

    I think the point about open formats is key. If you can export the work you have done and carry it away with you, then the company hasn’t taken anything from you.

  • GJ says:

    Mike T:

    home users will never accept an OS that requires a credit card bill every month to run

    That’s primarily an issue of branding, given how many are already accustomed to pay for products on a monthly basis.

  • Mike T says:

    That’s primarily an issue of branding, given how many are already accustomed to pay for products on a monthly basis.

    An OS that locks the user out if their credit card doesn’t go through is not going to be popular with anyone except downright morons (ie certain types of libertarians who think any variation in economic patterns in a market is “innovation.”)

  • Zippy says:

    JT:

    Zippy, there are many things “in the cloud” that don’t self-destruct on deactivation, so it may be clearer in future posts to point out this specific behavior.

    Agreed, and I’ll keep the editorial suggestion in mind.

    The contention isn’t “all cloud products are bad”, it is that some or many cloud products are pushing things in a direction of non-ownership “ownership” even when it comes to a person’s own actual work product and, in some cases, to software-dependent physical objects.

    I think the point about open formats is key. If you can export the work you have done and carry it away with you, then the company hasn’t taken anything from you.

    I don’t have a problem with “orphanware” — with software that may have bugs and is no longer supported. But orphanware isn’t the same thing as installed software which you have “purchased” but at some point self-destructs because it cannot get permission from the cloud to run at all.

    The point, again, isn’t that there is something always and intrinsically wrong with a client-server architecture. The point is that ‘anything goes’ is an incorrect moral understanding; not that “nothing goes”. And open formats are an important element, but supporting open formats doesn’t constitute moral license to do whatever one wants once that box has been checked.

  • Dystopia Max says:

    The fun question is more which comes first: the death of property or the death of proprietry?

  • […] (and not Moscow, as the Patriarch would have us believe). And then to New York, home of The Fed. Taxes are still paid, the Legions are still fed, the Barbarians still die, and the Emperor still rules. Who cares where […]

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