We seem to be living through a period of “foreordained doom”. We feel we have lost our bearings and are plodding on in ignorance through the dark. Such fatalism is dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be like this.
Every decade or so a helpful book, or books, appear which explain the big picture, what is happening and why. I remember being struck by the analysis in Spanish sociologist, Manuel Castell’s, trilogy, End of Millennium, The Power of Identity and Rise of the Network Society, published between 1996-1998, where he described the multiple correlates of the information economy that we were then entering. We are leaving the epoch of the industrial economy which, in turn, had emerged from an agricultural economy. Reminiscent of Marx, for Castells epochs were marked by radical changes in how we make a living, the mode of production, the nature of power and human experience. Each epoch is shaped by human decisions and shapes people making these decisions.
Twenty years later Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School Professor, picks up the story where Castells left off. Her The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the Frontier of Power, is a doorstep of a book but essential reading. She describes how the information economy was captured by Google first followed by Facebook and, later by Microsoft. The mass of information “clogging Google’s servers could be combined with its powerful analytic capabilities to produce prediction of user behaviour”, that is your and my behaviour. And this knowledge was destined to be worth tens of billions of dollars in revenue and profit through its commercial - advertising - application and effectiveness.
We all purchase things. And Google knows when, why and how this happens. The goal now is to create behavioural predictions that come closest to guaranteed outcomes in real-life behaviour. Google’s extraction of our personal information as data begins on-line but “the prediction imperative increases the momentum, driving extraction toward new sources in the real world”. Enter the “internet of things” where your fridge will soon be monitoring your preferred foods and passing the information on to what Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalists’, collecting this ‘surplus’ data to be sold on for profit.
The momentum behind this growth in technological capacity and its capture by the “puppet masters”, (Zuboff’s phrase), of Silicon Valley was increased by the American State’s interest in identifying potentially subversive behaviour patterns after 9/11. But the tech companies real purpose was cleverly hidden behind a rhetoric of their dominant story: bringing the world together, the promise of a new cyber-belonging and of expanding communications, as well as facilitating life in the consumer society – knowing what you want when you want it. Quite quickly we simply became habituated to our private details being hoovered up, numbed by the sheer complexity of the means used to invade our privacy. We simply can’t deal with change that is so unprecedented; we fall back on inappropriate former models of helplessness - such as living under totalitarianism. In Orwell’s bleak words we follow “the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible”.
Zuboff, who is a psychologist, sees this capture of the information economy as being led by non-state actors (China is an interesting and frightening exception). She conceives the process in terms of lessons drawn from B.F. Skinner’s 1970s’ Behaviourism, in all its Clockwork Orange awfulness, being applied behind the scenes. She sketches in an “instrumentarian future” in which “the machine world and social world operate in harmony…as humans emulate superior learning processes of the smart machines”. In this dystopia individuals are a nuisance causing friction in the smooth running of the market, free will is an illusion. A distinctive State controlled version of this dystopia is to be found in China’s Orwellian total surveillance plan for its Uigher citizens. The demand is to “sacrifice our freedom to collective [machine] knowledge imposed by others and for the sake of their guaranteed outcomes [i.e. in this instance social harmony and no bombs in Beijing].
Zuboff does not hide behind an academic research mask or avoid expressing her indignation about the dynamics of our information economy which demean people’s human dignity – particularly young people’s. She is forthright: “effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependence-induced compliance is no social contract, a hive with no exit can never be a home, experience without sanctuary is but a shadow…and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom”. Throughout the book she pursues the surveillance capitalists with a passion that pulls the reader through the dense text with its special vocabulary and takes you on to her next theme. Zuboff, justifying her own passion, takes Hannah Arendt’s engaged writing on totalitarianism as her model. She quotes from her that “the natural reaction to such conditions is one of anger and indignation because these conditions are against the dignity of man. If I describe these conditions without permitting my indignation to interfere, then I have lifted this particular phenomenon out of its context in human society and have thereby robbed it of part of its nature, deprived it of one of its important inherent qualities”.
Reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an experience which changes your view of the world. I have to admit to swallowing most of the surveillance capitalists’ sweet talk, getting accustomed to my personal details being acquired and used for someone else’s profit, thinking communicating with distant family and friends was a huge benefit and that this was all there was to it. Zuboff has stopped me in my tracks. I now share her indignation. After the effort of reading her 535 pages of text, with my jaw sagging, I can no longer plead ignorance and the loss of my bearings any more. Hello Mr. Zuckerberg. We have a problem.
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