Surveillance Capitalism – a waking nightmare

In her new book Shoshona Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as a ‘new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a must-read for anyone interested in the roll that the giant internet companies play in our society – and surely that must mean all of us. It reveals much more than the slick advertising of ‘smart’ machines over ‘dumb’ humans and the way that these companies prey on our psychological vulnerabilities.

This, according to Zuboff, is a ‘parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behaviour modification’. And she argues that it is as ‘significant threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world’.

Under this new economic hegemony instead of, as Marx put it, capital being the vampire that feeds on labour, surveillance capitalism ‘feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience’. It is no longer nature that is the raw material of capitalism – we humans are!

It all began almost by mistake when Google realised that the ‘behavioural surplus’ that was clogging up its servers as ‘data exhaust’ could be bundled together to create powerful and accurate predictions of human behaviour. That in turn could be deployed to modify human behaviour. Google simply declared, without any apparent challenge, that it claimed ‘human experience as raw material free for the taking’ in what Zuboff describes as being ‘conquest by declaration’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism also provides us with the philosophical underpinning of what Zuboff calls ‘instrumentarian power’. One of its high priests is Alex Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT’s Media Lab, whose ‘God’s eye view’ of animals is transposed to humans and declares that he doesn’t much like the ‘despotism of democracy’. Democracy, it turns out, is unwelcome friction in the otherwise smooth transition to perfect prediction of human behaviour through behavioural modification. In his thinking the sheer speed of the digital world outpaces the slow machinations of human deliberation and negotiation that characterises traditional politics. So, ‘computation replaces the political life of the community as the basis of governance’. And this process speeds up even more as the internet becomes decoupled from computers and smart ‘phones as it enters the real world with the Internet of Things.

Zuboff wtites: “This shift from society to swarm and from individuals to organisms is the cornerstone upon which the structure of an instrumentarian society rests.”

In his 2015 book Postcapitalism Paul Mason takes a rather more benign view of the internet because it allows the possibility of zero-priced goods in the webbed network as the spread of free information undermines the hierarchical interests of the corporations. He mentions in passing that part of the latter’s fightback is the ‘creation of monopolies on information’. According to Zuboff, however, this monopoly is the new capitalism. The question then arises as to how the creators of goods and services maintain their prices as ‘things’ become a part of the flow and the real value lies in the cheap information it contains.

Well, it has been known for some time that there is no such thing as a free market, except in the sense that the corporations demand freedom from regulations and interference. The masters of advertising have always played on our human frailties and in particular over the last 30 years or so have been working to infantilise us by encouraging us to want some ‘thing’ NOW instead of waiting until we have enough money to pay for it and by urging us to ditch cash in favour of plastic because it’s easier to part with our money. Nevertheless, the Internet of Things does present new problems for the ‘makers’ and they are having to think of new ways of pricing through mechanisms like subscriptions, pay-per-use and value sharing. At the same time surveillance capitalism does appear to create a tectonic shift away from the ‘makers’ to the information gleaners and Marx’s old adage in the Communist Manifesto that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ springs to mind.

In the meantime, Zuboff urges us to be the friction that Pentland so despises and she is as one with Mason as she attacks the inevitability that the tech giants exploit to make it seems as though there is no alternative. She writes: “Friction, courage, and bearings are the resources that claim the digital future as a human place, demand that digital capitalism operates as an inclusive force bound to the people it must serve, and defend the division of learning in society as a source of genuine democratic renewal.” Indeed, although in my darkest moments I wonder whether we have already become resigned to our fate through this sense of inevitability and helplessness, and that we will eventually collaborate in our own demise as Joseph K finally does in Kafka’s The Trial – heads bowed staring into the abyss of the black mirror that reflects our empty selves.

Dickie Bellringer


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