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Book Reviews Four things to know about ‘surveillance capitalism’ and the digital danger we’re in

  • Title: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power
  • Author: Shoshana Zuboff
  • Genre: Technology
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs, Hachette Book Group
  • Pages: 691

Way back in 2014, when Edward Snowden had only been world-famous for a few months (thanks to his leaked NSA documents showcasing broad and deep government surveillance), there were those who noted we were willingly giving far more personal information to Apple and Facebook than what Uncle Sam was sucking up. But that kind of whataboutism only barely recognized that the motives behind state and business spying couldn’t have less in common. Then Harvard academic and business columnist Shoshana Zuboff coined a term that might have seemed alarmist at the time, but now seems almost quaint: surveillance capitalism.

There were already many examples of companies monetizing the massive amounts of digital data we were spewing out – through our phones and computers and transponders – and people may have noticed that it was getting a little creepy. Zuboff’s new book argues that it was a) already much worse than we realized; b) much worse has happened since; and c) the worst is yet to come.

Simply put, she calls surveillance capitalism “a rogue force driven by novel economic imperatives that disregard social norms and nullify the elemental rights associated with individual autonomy.” In other words, it’s bad for you and bad for everyone else, too.

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Zuboff’s initial essays on this topic explored how surveillance capitalism created a hugely lucrative “surplus” out of monitoring human activity (your tweets and likes may seem valueless, but when you collect all our tweets and likes, they are worth billions), and that insight has informed critiques of abuses enabled by practitioners such as Facebook (Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Brexit and fake news to name just a few).

Her new book recaps how surveillance capitalism was born online, how it has begun to migrate into the physical world, how it has ripped traditional capitalism from its moorings and how it creates a future market for human behaviour not merely to sell ads against, but also to be used to modify and shape our behaviour toward commercial ends.

Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism a 'force' that is largely unknown to us and disregards 'social norms' and 'individual autonomy.'

ValeryBrozhinsky/ISTOCK

“At its core surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labour, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labour, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience,” she writes. “They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others’ gain, not ours.”

This book is not a light read. It’s packed with philosophy, business concepts, computer-science ideas and it doesn’t hold your hand.

It is also quite urgent in its attempt to sound the alarm. She warns that not only is our personal privacy at risk, but so, too, is our democracy and our economy. Capitalism itself, she warns, risks being destroyed by its mutant offspring.

Here are some of the key takeaways.

We’re already being experimented on

Facebook has famously bragged about the ability to make us happy or sad, to be more interested in voting or not, through modifications to our timeline. Pokemon Go! was a fun little game that got users to go to physical locations and catch animated characters, but the company behind it was letting companies pay – “sponsored locations”! – to get popular characters nearer to their stores and cafés. Advertising is a nudge enabled by mass surveillance, but what if your car insurer installs a device that not only monitors your habits and readjusts your rates in real time, but puts a governor on the speed you can drive? Are you still free?

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And it’s becoming ever harder to even know when you’re being modified, what data is shaping an interaction and what choices are occluded. “Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us,” Zuboff writes. “In this future we are exiles from our own behaviour, denied access to our control over knowledge derived from our experiences.”

It’s not just the internet – it’s everywhere

You might have heard the phrase “If you’re not paying, you’re the product,” which is a kind of snide way to dismiss anyone who complains about mass surveillance from Google (free, supported by ad sales) or Facebook (same).

What Zuboff’s new book says is that even companies you pay a lot of money to – insurance providers, automakers, telecom providers etc., now also want your data for free – because, under the logic of surveillance capitalism, everyone everywhere is always exploitable for data whether you want to be or not. We aren’t even the product any more, she argues, we’re the raw material – the coal in the smelter of surveillance capitalism.

Google created surveillance capitalism in 2000-02, when it mined the vast data trove of the internet and the search terms people were using to find stuff on it in order to sell “relevant” ads back to those searchers. Silicon Valley quickly adopted the same techniques to greater (Facebook) or lesser effect (everybody else). Only more recently have the titans of the old economy realized what was happening and how they could profit, too. In November, Ford chief executive Jim Hackett suggested the company had a vast capacity for data mining its previously analogue products: “We have 100 million people in vehicles today that are sitting in Ford blue-oval vehicles. That’s the case for monetizing opportunity,” he said in a Freakanomics Radio podcast.

Now, companies are looking to build physical infrastructure from scratch that serves surveillance goals. In Canada, one of Alphabet Inc.'s (the holding company formerly known as Google) subsidiaries called Sidewalk Labs is in charge of creating and controlling a chunk of “digital city” – really a vast, sensored, monitored surveillance community. Zuboff keys in on The Globe and Mail’s own coverage of the Sidewalk Toronto project on the city’s waterfront. She notes former Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s claim that Google’s interest in building “a city of the future” comes from imagining “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge,” and when Sidewalk was chosen to present a development plan for Quayside, he trumpeted: “Now, it’s our turn."

‘Surveillance capitalists know too much to qualify for freedom’

One of Zuboff’s fundamental arguments for why new types of regulation are needed is that surveillance capitalism doesn’t behave like traditional market actors, and so it doesn’t deserve the benefits of the free market.

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The capitalist theorists Western business thinkers turn to for guidance – Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter – all understood a market that was equal parts mystery and free based on “equally divided knowledge.” The market was thought to be too complex to regulate, hence freedom.

But surveillance capitalism attempts to remove all mystery. If surveillance capitalism creates something like a casino for brands to bet on our behaviour with ads, they also need to keep collecting ever more data to ensure the house (them) always wins. And while they know everything about us, we know nothing about them.

Worse, she says, it abandons “organic reciprocities,” as described by Smith, that have enabled capitalism’s appeal – where price increases had to be balanced with wage increases “so that the labourer may still be able to purchase that quantity of those necessary articles which the state of the demand for labour requires that he should have.” Because surveillance capitalism doesn’t see people as consumers, but as assets to be farmed, Zuboff says “social relations are no longer founded on mutual exchange. … Products and services are merely hosts for surveillance capitalism’s parasitic operations.”

Solutions

“We rely on categories such as ‘monopoly’ or ‘privacy’ to contest surveillance capital’s practices” says Zuboff, but the existing tools we have to address those issues don’t come close to solving the problem. She is calling for something more fundamental – entirely new rights.

Her main ideas are extensions of the European “right to be forgotten.” She calls for a right to a “future tense,” where we won’t have our behaviour modified by unseen forces, and a “right of sanctuary” so we can opt out of all tracking.

“Will surveillance capitalism continue on its current trajectory to become the dominant logic of accumulation of our age, or, in the fullness of time, will we judge it to have been a toothed bird: a fearsome but ultimately doomed dead end in capitalism’s longer journey?”

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The key weakness of this toothed bird, Zuboff claims, is the anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian nature of a system run by a tiny elite of tech futurists. A form of “tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. In a surreal paradox, this coup is celebrated as personalization.” She quotes Thomas Paine: “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

So how politically volatile is a population that finds itself on the short side of a commercial relationship? Zuboff frames the American Revolution as essentially a consumer revolt when British taxes and tariffs imposed on colonists through the Stamp Act and Tea Act broke the market’s reciprocity, and created enough political awareness to cause a violent break with their oppressors.

Digital tea party anyone?

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