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The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism (2016)

Linked by Paul Ciano on March 14, 2017

Shoshana Zuboff:

Bloomberg Business Week notes that these automotive systems will give insurers a chance to boost revenue by selling customer driving data in the same way that Google profits by collecting information on those who use its search engine. The CEO of Allstate Insurance wants to be like Google. He says, “There are lots of people who are monetizing data today. You get on Google, and it seems like it’s free. It’s not free. You’re giving them information; they sell your information. Could we, should we, sell this information we get from people driving around to various people and capture some additional profit source…? It’s a long-term game.”

Who are these “various people” and what is this “long-term game”? The game is no longer about sending you a mail order catalogue or even about targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life –your reality—in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit. This is the gateway to a new universe of monetization opportunities: restaurants who want to be your destination. Service vendors who want to fix your brake pads. Shops who will lure you like the fabled Sirens. The “various people” are anyone, and everyone who wants a piece of your behavior for profit. Small wonder, then, that Google recently announced that its maps will not only provide the route you search but will also suggest a destination.

This is just one peephole, in one corner, of one industry, and the peepholes are multiplying like cockroaches. Among the many interviews I’ve conducted over the past three years, the Chief Data Scientist of a much-admired Silicon Valley company that develops applications to improve students’ learning told me, “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us”.

We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests. This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making. I am thinking of matters that include, but are not limited to, the sanctity of the individual and the ideals of social equality; the development of identity, autonomy, and moral reasoning; the integrity of contract, the freedom that accrues to the making and fulfilling of promises; norms and rules of collective agreement; the functions of market democracy; the political integrity of societies; and the future of democratic sovereignty. In the fullness of time, we will look back on the establishment in Europe of the “Right to be Forgotten” and the EU’s more recent invalidation of the Safe Harbor doctrine as early milestones in a gradual reckoning with the true dimensions of this challenge.

Surveillance capitalism is a novel economic mutation bred from the clandestine coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three decades, especially in the Anglo economies. It is an unprecedented market form that roots and flourishes in lawless space. It was first discovered and consolidated at Google, then adopted by Facebook, and quickly diffused across the Internet.

Specifically, Google is the mothership and ideal type of a new economic logic based on fortune telling and selling, an ancient and eternally lucrative craft that has exploited the human confrontation with uncertainty from the beginning of the human story. Paradoxically, the certainty of uncertainty is both an enduring source of anxiety and one of our most fruitful facts. It produced the universal need for social trust and cohesion, systems of social organization, familial bonding, and legitimate authority, the contract as formal recognition of reciprocal rights and obligations, and the theory and practice of what we call “free will.” When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of perpetual compliance with someone else’s plan.

Google’s dramatic success in “matching” ads to pages revealed the transformational value of this behavioral surplus as a means of generating revenue and ultimately turning investment into capital. Behavioral surplus was the game-changing zero-cost asset that could be diverted from service improvement toward a genuine market exchange. Key to this formula, however, is the fact that this new market exchange was not an exchange with users but rather with other companies who understood how to make money from bets on users’ future behavior. In this new context, users were no longer an end-in-themselves. Instead they became a means to profits in a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products. Users are the source of free raw material that feeds a new kind of manufacturing process.

The equation: First, the push for more users and more channels, services, devices, places, and spaces is imperative for access to an ever-expanding range of behavioral surplus. Users are the human nature-al resource that provides this free raw material. Second, the application of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data science for continuous algorithmic improvement constitutes an immensely expensive, sophisticated, and exclusive twenty-first century “means of production.” Third, the new manufacturing process converts behavioral surplus into prediction products designed to predict behavior now and soon. Fourth, these prediction products are sold into a new kind of meta-market that trades exclusively in future behavior. The better (more predictive) the product, the lower the risks for buyers, and the greater the volume of sales. Surveillance capitalism’s profits derive primarily, if not entirely, from such markets for future behavior.

The significance of behavioral surplus was quickly camouflaged, both at Google and eventually throughout the Internet industry, with labels like “digital exhaust,” “digital breadcrumbs,” and so on. These euphemisms for behavioral surplus operate as ideological filters, in exactly the same way that the earliest maps of the North American continent labeled whole regions with terms like “heathens,” “infidels,” “idolaters,”primitives,” “vassals,” or “rebels.” On the strength of those labels, native peoples, their places and claims, were erased from the invaders’ moral and legal equations, legitimating their acts of taking and breaking in the name of Church and Monarchy.

We are the native peoples now whose tacit claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own behavior. They are erased in an astonishing and audacious act of dispossession by surveillance that claims its right to ignore every boundary in its thirst for knowledge of and influence over the most detailed nuances of our behavior. For those who wondered about the logical completion of the global processes of commodification, the answer is that they complete themselves in the dispossession of our intimate quotidian reality, now reborn as behavior to be monitored and modified, bought and sold.

…demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the Internet is like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck or a cow to give up chewing. Such demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival. How can we expect companies whose economic existence depends upon behavioral surplus to cease capturing behavioral data voluntarily? It’s like asking for suicide.

The imperatives of surveillance capitalism mean that there must always be more behavioral surplus for Google and others to turn into surveillance assets, master as prediction, sell into exclusive markets for future behavior, and transform into capital. At Google and its new holding company called Alphabet, for example, every operation and investment aims to increasing the harvest of behavioral surplus from people, bodies, things, processes, and places in both the virtual and the real world. This is how a sixty-seven hour day dawns and darkens in an emerald sky. Nothing short of a social revolt that revokes collective agreement to the practices associated with the dispossession of behavior will alter surveillance capitalism’s claim to manifest data destiny.

In the conventional narrative of the privacy threat, institutional secrecy has grown, and individual privacy rights have been eroded. But that framing is misleading, because privacy and secrecy are not opposites but rather moments in a sequence. Secrecy is an effect; privacy is the cause. Exercising one’s right to privacy produces choice, and one can choose to keep something secret or to share it. Privacy rights thus confer decision rights, but these decision rights are merely the lid on the Pandora’s Box of the liberal order. Inside the box, political and economic sovereignty meet and mingle with even deeper and subtler causes: the idea of the individual, the emergence of the self, the felt experience of free will.

Surveillance capitalism does not erode these decision rights –– along with their causes and their effects –– but rather it redistributes them. Instead of many people having some rights, these rights have been concentrated within the surveillance regime, opening up an entirely new dimension of social inequality.

In result, surveillance capitalism conjures a profoundly anti-democratic power that qualifies as a coup from above: not a coup d’état, but rather a coup des gens, an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty. It challenges principles and practices of self-determination ––in psychic life and social relations, politics and governance –– for which humanity has suffered long and sacrificed much.

The bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.

Paul Ciano

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