I began reading The Age of Surveillance on the premise of learning a little more about the influence of social networks and the deleterious impact they have on the modern human psyche. Instead, Shoshana Zuboff opened a much broader chapter of analysis in which she managed to follow the etymology of growth through a few hypotheses and instead traced the evolution of capitalism. This work comes as an academic umbrella to many particular questions regarding our digital lives, among which social networks become just one part. If you are patient enough, buckle up and Shoshana Zuboff will take you to a long journey.
Zuboff begins by noting that "surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data." As such, our digital behaviour encompasses a wide range of preferences and choices that we voluntarily or involuntarily share online. This inevitably becomes "a proprietary behavioural surplus that is fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as "machine intelligence" and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.” Surveillance capitalists wrap themselves in the fashions of support and emancipation, appealing to and exploiting the fears of the day, while the real action remains hidden behind the scene.
The hidden actions behind the scene are the main interest of her research, which deals extensively with the origin of a newly appearing capitalist system, its social and intellectual meaning. “We are the sources of surveillance capitalism’s crucial surplus. Surveillance capitalism’s actual customers are the enterprises that trade in its markets for future behaviour.”More broadly, the quintessence of her work concerns the idea that "just as industrial civilization flourished at the expense of nature and now threatens to cost us the Earth, an information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism and its new instrumentarian power will thrive at the expense of human nature and will threaten to cost us our humanity.” Another important point brought to light is the often existing problem of confusion between surveillance capitalism and the technologies it employs.“ Surveillance capitalists would have us believe that their practices are inevitable expressions of the technologies they employ.
The migration of surveillance capitalism from the online environment to the real world serves to highlight examples of changes that have occurred since the technologies were deployed. “Instrumentarian power aims to organize, herd, and tune society to achieve a similar social confluence, in which group pressure and computational certainty replace politics and democracy, extinguishing the felt reality and social function of an individualized existence.” With this observation, this book deals in-depth with the "imposition of a totalizing collectivist vision of life in the hive, with surveillance capitalists and their data priesthood in charge of oversight and control" Zuboff challenges the premise of individualization, claiming that it "should not be confused with the neoliberal ideology of "individualism," which shifts all responsibility for success or failure to a mythical, atomized, isolated individual doomed to a life of perpetual competition and disconnected from relationships, community, and society. “ Individualization has sent each of us on the hunt for the resources we need to live effectively, but at every turn, we are forced to contend with an economy and politics from whose point of view we are mere cyphers. We live knowing that our lives have unique value, but we are treated as invisible.
“In our enthusiasm and growing dependency on technology, we tended to forget that the same forces of capital from which we had fled in the “real” world were rapidly claiming ownership of the wider digital sphere. This left us vulnerable and caught unawares when the early promise of information capitalism took a darker turn. ” In addition to individualization, Zuboff is interested in interpreting the concept of disruption, which is often used as an argument for a pre-existing value system. Under the guise of disruption, corporations have successfully covered up so many examples of brutal surveillance capitalism. “Google is to surveillance capitalism what the Ford Motor Company and General Motors were to mass-production–based managerial capitalism. ”, she writes.
“Users provided the raw material in the form of behavioral data, and those data were harvested to improve speed, accuracy, and relevance and to help build ancillary products such as translation.” This is called the behavioral value reinvestment cycle, in which all behavioral data are reinvested in the improvement of the product or service ” Google's invention unveiled new ways to understand the thoughts, feelings, intentions, and interests of individuals and groups with an automated architecture that functions as a one-way mirror independent of a person's awareness, understanding, and consent, allowing privileged, secret access to behavioural data. “With click-through rates as the measure of relevance accomplished, behavioral surplus was institutionalized as the cornerstone of a new kind of commerce that depended upon online surveillance at scale.” “Google has been careful to camouflage the significance of its behavioral surplus operations in industry jargon. Two popular terms—“digital exhaust” and “digital breadcrumbs”—connote worthless waste: leftovers lying around for the taking.” Zuboff also denounces the word "targeted," calling it another euphemism that evokes notions of precision, efficiency, and competence.
“Surveillance capitalism originates in this act of digital dispossession, brought to life by the impatience of over-accumulated investment and two entrepreneurs who wanted to join the system. This is the lever that moved Google’s world and shifted it toward profit.” She goes on to describe a fortification of Google's practices, citing 4 key factors: 1) "competitive advantage in electoral politics” 2) "a deliberate blurring of public and private interests through relationships and aggressive lobbying activities" 3) "a revolving door of personnel who migrated between Google and the Obama administration" and 4) "Google's intentional campaign of influence over academic work and the larger cultural conversation “
“Google had discovered that successful dispossession is not a single action but rather an intricate convergence of political, social, administrative, and technical operations. “The four stages of the cycle are incursion, habituation, adaptation, and redirection. ”
The book makes a solid case for why surveillance capitalism is profoundly anti-democratic since its striking power does not originate from the state, as it has historically. Its consequences cannot be reduced to or explained by technology or the bad intentions of evil people; they are the consistent and predictable outcomes of an inherently constant and successful logic of accumulation. “That the luxuries of one generation or class become the necessities of the next has been fundamental to the evolution of capitalism during the last five hundred years.” The main argument against the big tech corporations are hints of broader ambitions in which "emotion as a service" expands from observation to modification. A more human-centred worldview is expressed in her right to "will to will". The scientists and engineers she interviewed distinguished three main paths to the economics of action, each of which aims to accomplish behaviour modification: 1) "tuning," 2) "herding," and 3) “conditioning."
“The arc of behavioral modification at scale integrates the many operations that we have examined: ubiquitous extraction and rendition, actuation (tuning, herding, conditioning), behavioral surplus supply chains, machine-intelligence–based manufacturing processes, fabrication of prediction products, dynamic behavioral futures markets, and “targeting,” which leads to fresh rounds of tuning, herding, conditioning, and the coercions of the uncontract, thus renewing the cycle”
There is a growing sign of the psychic toll of life in the hive, in which the behavioural expertise of surveillance capital conflicts with the centuries-old human impulse toward self-construction. “The self-objectification associated with social comparison is also associated with other psychological dangers. First, we present ourselves as data objects for inspection, and then we experience ourselves as the “it” that others see.” “What we witness here is a bet-the-farm commitment to the socialization and normalization of instrumentarian power for the sake of surveillance revenues.”
Another human-centred idea of Zuboff is the right to sanctuary as technology increasingly takes over our homes and devices track every second of our privacy both online and offline. “Right now we are at the beginning of a new arc that I have called information civilization, and it repeats the same dangerous arrogance. The aim now is not to dominate nature but rather human nature. The focus has shifted from machines that overcome the limits of bodies to machines that modify the behavior of individuals, groups, and populations in the service of market objectives.”
The main questions remain as Zuboff claims: “Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides? ”
It took some time to finish this great book, but it was worth it. I expect it to become even more important in the years to come, as Zuboff declares that this study is only the beginning, not the end, of a new period.