Blog 15: The age of surveillance capitalism

There is still time to buy a substantive book for the thoughtful techie or concerned citizen in your life.  Allow me to recommend two choices that were published in 2019.  One good option is my wide-ranging textbook Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, enough said ….  But an unbiased choice is Shoshana Zuboff’s monumental The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.  The author signals her intentions with the book’s subtitle: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School, defines and describes surveillance capitalism (p. 8):

Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.  Although some … data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as proprietary behavioural surplus. fed into manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, or later.  Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral future markets.  Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are eager to lay bets on our future behaviour.

… Eventually, surveillance capitalists discovered that the most-predictive behavioral data come from intervening … in order to nudge, coax, turn, and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes.  Competitive pressures produced this shift, in which automated machine processes not only know our behavior, but also shape our behavior at scale.  With this reorientation from knowledge to power, it is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. … the means of production are subordinated to an increasingly complex and comprehensive ‘means of behavioral modification.’  In this way, surveillance capitalism births a new species of power that I shall call instrumentarianism.  Instrumentarian power knows and shapes human behavior toward other’s ends.  Instead of armaments and armies, it works its will through the automated medium of an increasingly ubiquitous computational architecture of “smart” networked devices, things, and spaces.”Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.  Although some … data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as proprietary behavioural surplus. fed into manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, or later.  Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral future markets.  Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are eager to lay bets on our future behaviour.

Zuboff discusses how Google invented and perfected surveillance capitalism, and how it has been adopted by others such as Facebook.  She states that the threat of a totalitarian Big Brother has been supplanted by a “Big Other” with unprecedented knowledge and power, free from effective democratic oversight.

Stressing that “,,, surveillance capitalism is a logic in action and not a technology…” (p. 15), she states that “… surveillance capitalists asserted their right to invade at will, usurping individual decision rights in favor of unilateral surveillance and the self-authorized extraction of human experience for others’ profit.” (p. 19).  “Much of this … is accomplished under the banner of ‘personalization’, a camouflage for aggressive extraction operations that mine the intimate depths of everyday life”, she notes. (p. 19).  In response to this, we seem helpless, victims of “… a psychic numbing that inures us to the realities of being tracked, parsed, trained, and modified.” (p. 11)

Zuboff proposes: “Only ‘we the people’ can reverse the course, first by naming the unprecedented, then by mobilizing new forms of collaborative action: the crucial friction that reasserts the primacy of a flourishing human future as the foundation of our information civilization.” (p. 21). If one can make any criticism about this landmark work, it is that the collective action that she proposes is not described.

For that person in your life who wants not just a dose from a fire hose but total immersion, may I suggest that you also purchase Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s thoughtful and imaginative Re-Engineering Humanity.  Happy holidays to all, and may next year be better than this one!

FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION

How are the surveillance capitalist approaches of Google, Facebook, and Amazon similar or different?  How are Zuboff and Frischmann/Selinger’s theories complementary?

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