Shoshana Zuboff and Surveillance Capitalism
By Dan Clendenin
One of the most important books I have read in the last several years is by Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 691pp.
For an interview with Zuboff, see here: https://slate.com/technology/2020/05/coronavirus-shoshana-zuboff-surveillance-capitalism-interview.html
Since 1981 Zuboff has been the Charles Edward Wilson Professor (now Emerita) at Harvard Business School, where she was one of the first tenured women on the faculty. She’s pursued a “lifelong quest” to answer the question whether our contemporary digital culture can be a safe space for individuals and society to flourish, given that today’s digital culture has overtaken and redefined everything, including “nearly every form of social participation.” Her book is the crowning achievement of a distinguished career. It is intellectually ambitious, morally courageous, and refreshingly creative.
Zuboff’s book is about “the darkening of the digital dream, and its rapid mutation into a voracious and utterly novel commercial project that I call surveillance capitalism.” Our unprecedented challenge today is not runaway technology (which is just a means to an end), but a new form of rogue capitalism that is a “cruel perversion” of what it ought to be. Just as industrial capitalism exploited and disfigured physical nature in the nineteenth century, surveillance capitalism degrades our fundamental notions of human nature and a democratic society. In her view it is a “profoundly anti-democratic force.”
The “raw material” of surveillance capitalism is our human experience that is turned into Big Data, which companies then claim legal ownership over as their proprietary information. Big Data is thus an “extraction industry.” We’ve long known that companies like Google and Facebook track, store, and analyze every click of our mouse, every swipe on our phone, and every photo that we upload. Almost nothing escapes this digital dragnet. But this is just our online, digital world.
With the so-called Internet of Things, almost any physical object can be embedded with sensors, software, connectivity, and processors in order to monitor every aspect of our real life activities — from a toaster to a toilet seat. Alex Pentland of MIT calls this “reality mining.” Your television records every voice and noise within its vicinity. Your Roomba vacuum cleaner maps every inch of your house. Your fitness tracker monitors your body. Your SleepNumber mattress records every movement and sound that you make. Reality mining can determine exactly where your physical body is in space and time.
This extraction data of our online actions and lived experiences relies upon mass behavioral addiction as a business model, and results in an unimaginable amount of complex information. This data is often sold to third parties (who in turn sell to it other third parties, and so on), analyzed by machine learning and artificial intelligence in ways far beyond mere human capabilities, turned into prediction algorithms that are bought and sold on a “behavioral futures market,” all with the goal of mass behavioral modification. “The goal of everything we do,” writes a chief data scientist, “is to change people’s actual behavior at scale.”
Surveillance capitalism is a “totalizing societal project.” Google co-founder Larry Page put it this way: “Everything you’ve ever heard or seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable.” Your entire lived reality is thus rendered as extremely valuable searchable information: ordering soap, thinking angry thoughts, or complaining about your acne. In the words of a Facebook engineer, “We are trying to map out the graph of everything in the world and how it relates to each other.”
Consider three examples. In 2016, the founder of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, boasted about its capabilities for personality-based “micro-behavioral targeting,” which supported the “Leave” Brexit and the Trump presidential campaign, based upon their four to five thousand data points about every adult in the United States. Or again, in 2012, Facebook startled experts when it published an article in the prestigious journal Nature entitled “A 61-Million Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.” The FB researchers concluded that their manipulations of social messages resulted in an additional 340,000 votes cast.
Then there’s the augmented reality game Pokémon Go that was released in 2016 and downloaded more than a billion times by early 2019. Zuboff describes it as a “surveillance capitalist’s dream come true” for the way that it combined “scale, scope, and actuation: yielding continuous sources of behavioral surplus; and providing fresh data to elaborate the mapping of interior, exterior, public, and private spaces. Most important, it provided a living laboratory for telestimulation at scale as the game’s owners learned how to automatically condition and herd collective behavior, directing it toward real-time constellations of behavior futures markets, with all of this accomplished just beyond the rim of individual awareness.”
Zuboff admits that it is impossible to avoid or escape surveillance capitalism. And although there have been a few victories, like the “right to be forgotten” case in Spain, she does not place much hope in privacy laws, user agreements, or promises that companies will regulate themselves for the good of society. About the best that she can muster is to urge us to resist our psychic numbing to our new status quo and every impulse to resignation. We need to recover a sense of astonishment at our unprecedented situation, and a righteous indignation at the degradations of human nature, a just economy, and a democratic society.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism was on many “Best of 2019” lists (cf. The New Yorker), including that of President Obama.
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com
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