Surveillance Capitalism

I’m a terrible macroeconomist. All the fancy words, metrics and graphs make my head spin. What I do in such cases is draw analogies from related behavior that I can understand. That allows me to make more progress than a hundred pundits can manage. Example, what is quantitative easing? It’s inflation. That’s obviously not 100% accurate but 99% is close enough.

Which brings us to the monetization of information and the Internet of Things, two “new and life-changing” ideas that pundits love to talk about. Well, no. When it comes to humans and their managers, the behavior dynamics are no different than the schoolyard and slavery. Technology is a new tool for the same old conduct. This article would be almost impossible to read unless you knew that the author was a Marxist. The book author wants to discuss the “new concept” she discovered, the columnist wants to explore the implications and I want to point out how history has already recorded what’s about to happen.

‘The goal is to automate us’: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is a chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff’s work and asks the author 10 key questions

Nine key questions. Naughton counted wrong.

By John Naughton, 20 January 2019

We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead.

My just-described method is much superior to hindsight. The key is that human nature doesn’t change; thus, the key to understanding a new technology is first understanding default human behavior. Replace your technology columnist with a theologian for best results.

Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrate our conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.

The priests knew what the printing press would do because they knew they weren’t obeying Scripture. A new invention to make Scripture accessible to their chumps was clearly going to have the effect that it eventually did. That’s why Luther’s greatest offense against the Vatican wasn’t the 95 Theses against indulgences, it was translating the Bible into German so ordinary people could read it for themselves. A good opening example of how new technology’s impact can be predictable.

Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.

Yes, we can network better than ever before. No, it’s not revolutionary. We had the Sears Roebuck catalog before Amazon and pen pals before blogging. Tech facilitates human behavior but doesn’t create new behaviors.

Which is why the arrival of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is such a big event. Many years ago – in 1988, to be precise – as one of the first female professors at Harvard Business School to hold an endowed chair she published a landmark book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, which changed the way we thought about the impact of computerisation on organisations and on work.

Nobody has heard of that book, which proves how much of a Rosetta Stone for the future it wasn’t. This seems a good place to discuss Zuboff:

Whoa, nelly! The saying is “hoop earrings are where her feet go during playtime”. That, her manjaw Jaws-jaw and flat chest proves she’s a high-T slut.

Her ring finger is longer than her index finger. Testosterone confirmed! Meanwhile, she keeps her hair thick to accommodate all the frizziness… indicating a major case of disrupted thinking. A female amongst the Harvard Elites proves she’s socialist, feminist and generally an enemy of all men who once could have made a good husband for her.

[The earlier book] provided the most insightful account up to that time of how digital technology was changing the work of both managers and workers. …

And now [her new book] has arrived – the most ambitious attempt yet to paint the bigger picture and to explain how the effects of digitisation that we are now experiencing as individuals and citizens have come about. …

Her story is that Big Data is not so much about the nature of digital technology as about a new, mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to use tech for its purposes. The name Zuboff has given to the new variant is “surveillance capitalism”.

It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.

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

Monetizing human behavior has been done before. It’s called slavery, not surveillance capitalism. Slavery is an economic institution, not a political institution. It’s an umbrella of systems for underpaying people for services rendered.

While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx.

That evolution of capitalism is a badly incorrect sequence. Just as an example, America’s capitalism shifting from mass-produced goods to a service-sector economy was not an evolution. Our manufacturing base was intentionally dismanthed by free trade. Service jobs can’t be sent overseas, hence they became the dominant sector of the economy.

That didn’t have to happen.

Let’s begin the questions.

1. John Naughton: At the moment, the world is obsessed with Facebook. But as you tell it, Google was the prime mover.

Shoshana Zuboff: Surveillance capitalism is a human creation. It lives in history, not in technological inevitability. It was pioneered and elaborated through trial and error at Google in much the same way that the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism was invented around 2001 as the solution to financial emergency in the teeth of the dotcom bust when the fledgling company faced the loss of investor confidence. As investor pressure mounted, Google’s leaders abandoned their declared antipathy toward advertising. Instead they decided to boost ad revenue by using their exclusive access to user data logs (once known as “data exhaust”) in combination with their already substantial analytical capabilities and computational power, to generate predictions of user click-through rates, taken as a signal of an ad’s relevance.

I disagree. After the craziness of early dot-com investment, Google reached the point of needing to turn a profit. The simple answer, back when payment processors were neither sophisticated nor fraud-resistant, was the precedent of radio. The consumers of radio broadcasts can’t put quarters in their home jukebox so the stations got their revenue from the other side, via advertising.

AOL had pop-up ads long before Google did. Google leveraging its databases to improve advertising was only a variation on the theme.

2. JN: So surveillance capitalism started with advertising, but then became more general?

SZ: Surveillance capitalism is no more limited to advertising than mass production was limited to the fabrication of the Ford Model T. It quickly became the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by nearly every startup and app. And it was a Google executive – Sheryl Sandberg – who played the role of Typhoid Mary, bringing surveillance capitalism from Google to Facebook, when she signed on as Mark Zuckerberg’s number two in 2008. By now it’s no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players.

No, it’s limited to the Internet sector. Outside it, recording every person’s individual decision and thought is extremely difficult. This is the purpose of the Internet of Things: those who want to track human behavior want to track it in real life, so they push for “Internetting” everything from dollars to grocery lists.

The bait is convenience. The hook is behavior control, which can only happen with the precedent of behavior observation. More on that later.

3. JN: In this story of conquest and appropriation, the term “digital natives” takes on a new meaning…

SZ: Yes, “digital natives” is a tragically ironic phrase. I am fascinated by the structure of colonial conquest, especially the first Spaniards who stumbled into the Caribbean islands. Historians call it the “conquest pattern”, which unfolds in three phases: legalistic measures to provide the invasion with a gloss of justification, a declaration of territorial claims, and the founding of a town to legitimate the declaration. Back then Columbus simply declared the islands as the territory of the Spanish monarchy and the pope. …

Google began by unilaterally declaring that the world wide web was its to take for its search engine. Surveillance capitalism originated in a second declaration that claimed our private experience for its revenues that flow from telling and selling our fortunes to other businesses. In both cases, it took without asking. Page [Larry, Google co-founder] foresaw that surplus operations would move beyond the online milieu to the real world, where data on human experience would be free for the taking. As it turns out his vision perfectly reflected the history of capitalism, marked by taking things that live outside the market sphere and declaring their new life as market commodities.

Zuboff’s Communist colors showed in that question. Google’s collection of data, at least initially, was voluntary and later became a monopolistic practice. Her comparison to Spanish colonialism came out of nowhere. No surprise that a hardened feminist’s first step in understanding a complex topic is looking for a villain to blame.

As an aside, conquest is the Communist model, not the capitalist. The latter is driven by market incentives; the former is driven by envy.

4. JN: Then there’s the “inevitability” narrative – technological determinism on steroids.

SZ: In my early fieldwork in the computerising offices and factories of the late 1970s and 80s, I discovered the duality of information technology: its capacity to automate but also to “informate”, which I use to mean to translate things, processes, behaviours, and so forth into information. This duality set information technology apart from earlier generations of technology: information technology produces new knowledge territories by virtue of its informating capability, always turning the world into information. The result is that these new knowledge territories become the subject of political conflict. The first conflict is over the distribution of knowledge: “Who knows?” The second is about authority: “Who decides who knows?” The third is about power: “Who decides who decides who knows?”

In keeping with her Communist outlook on life, Zuboff is trying to build a framework for a Proletariat Revolution. She’s also setting up for a Hegelian dialetic between one side which controls the information and the opposing side which IS the information. Per history, her synthesis will be a political class that rules Big Data on behalf of the unwashed masses.

Aside from that, there’s no need for new words such as “informate” here. The previous version of translating things, processes, behaviours and so forth into information was three-ring binders of standard operating procedures.

5. JN: So the big story is not really the technology per se but the fact that it has spawned a new variant of capitalism that is enabled by the technology?

SZ: Larry Page grasped that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood, that it could be extracted at no extra cost online and at very low cost out in the real world. For today’s owners of surveillance capital the experiential realities of bodies, thoughts and feelings are as virgin and blameless as nature’s once-plentiful meadows, rivers, oceans and forests before they fell to the market dynamic. We have no formal control over these processes because we are not essential to the new market action. Instead we are exiles from our own behaviour, denied access to or control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others. Knowledge, authority and power rest with surveillance capital, for which we are merely “human natural resources”. We are the native peoples now whose claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience.

There’s the other half of the Hegelian dialetic she’s setting up.

While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those.

It’s actually quite easy to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital. “Papers, please”? Every despot gathers extensive information on the people he oppresses in order to control them. Even the American government has a decennial census for keeping track of its population, dating from the 18th Century.

The Information Age has facilitated that behavior but not created that behavior. Of course, it’s not capitalism of any kind. It’s just surveillance.

6. JN: Where does surveillance capitalism go from here?

SZ: Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

Now Zuboff’s humanist roots are showing. She imagines having enough information to literally play God. Unfortunately for her, the deity she doesn’t believe in exists so I don’t think much of her well-ordered Utopia. To say nothing of the fallen angel pulling her strings.

This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.

Which is why the information “what I had for breakfast and where” is valuable. Knowing my behavior is the first step towards controlling my behavior. The Goolag’s real goal is  not coupons for breakfast burritos.

If more data was good data then science wouldn’t be having its reproducibility crisis. I looked into that crisis and the gist of it is that scientists were reporting correlations between statistics instead of deriving and testing the underlying principles.

They seek to control, not to understand. A very common theme in history.

7. JN: What are the implications for democracy?

SZ: During the past two decades surveillance capitalists have had a pretty free run, with hardly any interference from laws and regulations. Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power. These dangerous asymmetries are institutionalised in their monopolies of data science, their dominance of machine intelligence, which is surveillance capitalism’s “means of production”, their ecosystems of suppliers and customers, their lucrative prediction markets, their ability to shape the behaviour of individuals and populations, their ownership and control of our channels for social participation, and their vast capital reserves. We enter the 21st century marked by this stark inequality in the division of learning: they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them. These new forms of social inequality are inherently antidemocratic.

This is a good time to mention that when a Communist like Zuboff talks about democracy, she’s talking about Marx’s proletariat not a representational system of government. USA could ban all women and socialists from citizenship and still have a democratic system of government.

My Hegelian synthesis prediction is looking good.

This antidemocratic and anti-egalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse of digital technology. On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. Paradoxically, this coup is celebrated as “personalisation”, although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.

I agree that Big Data is a form of tyranny but not where she says it’s “not of the people”. Slaves want tyrants as surely as tyrants want slaves. This is why so many people accept the digitization and monetization of their daily lives, because many of them WANT to be monitored and controlled.

Human nature is to be ruled by God. For those who believe God does not exist, a tyranny of information-driven micromanagement is a comfort, not a burden. “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” -Voltaire

8. JN: Our societies seem transfixed by all this: we are like rabbits paralysed in the headlights of an oncoming car.

SZ: Despite surveillance capitalism’s domination of the digital milieu and its illegitimate power to take private experience and to shape human behaviour, most people find it difficult to withdraw, and many ponder if it is even possible. This does not mean, however, that we are foolish, lazy, or hapless. On the contrary, in my book I explore numerous reasons that explain how surveillance capitalists got away with creating the strategies that keep us paralysed. These include the historical, political and economic conditions that allowed them to succeed. And we’ve already discussed some of the other key reasons, including the nature of the unprecedented, conquest by declaration. Other significant reasons are the need for inclusion, identification with tech leaders and their projects, social persuasion dynamics, and a sense of inevitability, helplessness and resignation.

The proletariats are unfairly oppressed by the factory owners! How original.

9. JN: Our societies seem transfixed by all this: we are like rabbits paralysed in the headlights of an oncoming car.

SZ: Despite surveillance capitalism’s domination of the digital milieu and its illegitimate power to take private experience and to shape human behaviour, most people find it difficult to withdraw, and many ponder if it is even possible. This does not mean, however, that we are foolish, lazy, or hapless. On the contrary, in my book I explore numerous reasons that explain how surveillance capitalists got away with creating the strategies that keep us paralysed. These include the historical, political and economic conditions that allowed them to succeed. And we’ve already discussed some of the other key reasons, including the nature of the unprecedented, conquest by declaration. Other significant reasons are the need for inclusion, identification with tech leaders and their projects, social persuasion dynamics, and a sense of inevitability, helplessness and resignation.

Translation, we’re helpless without a Communist Party seizing the reins of Big Data on behalf of the workers.

Surveillance capitalism is a human-made phenomenon and it is in the realm of politics that it must be confronted. The resources of our democratic institutions must be mobilised, including our elected officials. GDPR [a recent EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the EU] is a good start, and time will tell if we can build on that sufficiently to help found and enforce a new paradigm of information capitalism. Our societies have tamed the dangerous excesses of raw capitalism before, and we must do it again.

Boom, right on schedule. Substitute New Socialist Worker’s Party for “elected officials of our democratic institutions” and Zugoff’s impenetrable logorrhea becomes not only clear, it becomes a reiteration of last century’s Communism.

It’s all about patterns. Zugoff sees Big Data and the people it monitors as Marx’s factory owners and peasants. I see eggheaded Elites with a new lever by which to control us for their doomed-to-fail social experiments, again a very common pattern in history. Don’t let the glamour fascinate you. The Brave New World is the Same Old Shit.

That’s because human nature never changes. It can’t change. We’re wired. Programmed by a Creator. We can fight against that programming and repeat history, or we can accept that programming and make the most of life… and repeat a happier part of history.

You don’t have to be a subject matter expert to recognize a pattern. “Surveillance capitalism” is just non-gov’t… well, not-yet-gov’t… tyranny. The Goolag intends to enslave us and this is not news to anybody with an understanding of history.


2 thoughts on “Surveillance Capitalism

  1. Thumbs up. I liked how you pointed out that the book no one read couldn’t possibly have had any significant influence on society.

    I’m an IT monkey. I have computers hooked up to the internet. I bought my last new vehicle because the newer models have to have the USG nanny tech built in. I have a percolator for my coffee, and an old school, gets hot enough to burn you, toaster.

    IoT is a system ripe for the disrupting by hackers, and as you noted for controlling people.


  2. “I’m an IT monkey. I have computers hooked up to the internet. I bought my last new vehicle because the newer models have to have the USG nanny tech built in.”

    Me, too. I got a Subaru just before they put in the automated braking and purchased the extended warranty just because there were so many useless electronic gadgets in it ripe for breaking. The nanny-tech is distracting and God only knows what I’ll do when I need another car.


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