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October 5th, 2020
For about 6 centuries, Medieval Europe was organized in a system that is often referred to as feudalism. Not only was the term coined long after the age of feudalism, but as with many terms, there remains the usual debacle of debate and nitpicked nuance about what it is, what it means, and if it even refers to the thing it was invented to define. Roughly speaking, the most common use and understanding of feudalism becomes useful when we think of the current age of cognitive feudalism.
In Medieval Europe, people fell really into just two classes: those who worked the land, and those who owned the land. There are, of course a smörgåsbord of terms to define nuanced relationships within and between these two classes, but for modern relevance, this one relationship is most important, and what’s most important to realize is that these two classes of people had no overlap: meaning, those who owned land didn’t work their own land, and those who worked the land never owned that land. A more extreme version of this relationship between people as communicated through land and it’s products is slavery in the first century of United States history. Those who worked the cotton fields never owned those cotton fields. Outright slavery takes it one step further and makes the workers of that land property of the owner of the land, in addition to that land. The economic relationship is one of predation.
Current within the theory of evolution is that rise of predation among early organisms lead to a biological arms race between species. Eyes, and ears developed because they were useful, not just for predators looking and listening for prey, but also for those preyed upon looking out and listening for predators. The general energy relationship between predator and prey is very similar to the energy economics of feudalism or slavery. Prey generally consists of herbivores, and what do herbivores do? They spend nearly all of their time eating and digesting because leafy greens are pretty skimp on the energy quotient, or rather, leaves aren’t very fat, so in order to get a fat cow, that cow has to eat a monumental amount of grass. Put another way, the cow labors nearly constantly in order to become energy dense. Then a predator comes along, whacks the cow, and gets all that juicy energy in a tiny fraction of the time, this excahcnge can also be referred to as gravity cost. Unlike prey, a predator doesn’t have to spend all it’s time eating. We can swap out the nouns and verbs here to show just how similar this energy exchange is to the economic exchange of feudal Europe: Unlike the peasant, a land owner doesn’t have to spend all their time working the land. It’s the same relationship, and it’s trading in the same currency. The predator eats up stored energy in the form of fat. In the feudal relationship, this stored energy, in the form of farmed goods - which is quite literally what herbivores would eat to concentrate energy in fat - is sold in order to convert that energy into money and loyalty - a different form of stored energy. Nobles in feudal Europe were supposedly entitled to their rank because they were called upon as a warrior class when danger threatened the overall state.
Fast forward to the modern day and much of the physical labor of feudal days is now done by huge machines driven by single individuals: combine harvesters and seeders. Much of the manual labor has transformed into things like truck driving and serving, manning cash registers and of course, pushing paper. In short, there is an absolute cornucopia of occupations which fall into a feudal-like relationship. A boss directs and benefits from the effort of a large group of underlings. We might even liken the feudal lord to the modern CEO, and of course CEO’s are entitled to their rank because of their supposedly superior insight regarding how a company should be steered. (As an aside, perhaps founders deserve more credit and trust by default: they gave birth to the original vision which has likely created a new way of creating value, or rather translating some meandering convoluted path of energy into money, i.e. we have time to scroll our feeds because we no longer have to spend out time feeding pigs and scrolling through rows of crops.)
People in such top positions gain in a similar way that feudal lords and predators do. They gain very quickly and efficiently from an underclass of workers that spend all their time actually doing the work. This relationship is lately hyper charged by the explosion in salary for many top tier positions at the expense of employee salaries.
As an individual enmeshed in this elaborate macramé patchwork of such cognitive feudalisms, that we call society, it does well to consider privately where one’s cognitive efforts are best directed. To throw the entire feudal relationship out the window would result in a system collapse. There is no such thing as a company without a founder, and there’s no such thing as a founder without people who are willing to help bring a vision to light.
You only have so much time to think about anything. Is it perhaps a better use of the little free time we may have to try and think of ways to increase the amount of free time we have to think in our own directions, instead of dedicating our brain power to the implementation and realization of someone else’s vision outsourced? In the modern world, the prey can’t think for themselves because their brains are busy trying to figure out how to make someone else’s vision become real. If one’s job is unfulfilling, than thinking of the boss as a cognitive predator is likely apt, but there are grand things we can achieve that can’t be achieved without teamwork, and teamwork as directed by a thoughtful and visionary leader requires some cognitive feudalism. One of the differences though is that given a grand vision of optimal complexity and difficulty, it’s more than possible and even inspiring to lend your abilities to the cause. The mission becomes a form of feudalism when we don’t believe in it, and that’s when it’s perhaps time to dedicate that precious free time to think about how to increase how much time we have to think.