Babak Fakhamzadeh's Reviews > The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
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bookshelves: current-affairs

Necessary, but too long and with way too much too florid and unnecessary prose.

The title of the book immediately makes itself understood, which makes it surprising Zuboff needs so many pages to explain herself.
Surveillance capitalism: An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people's sovereignty.
We are an 'information civilisation', where acquired data not used for product improvements is a 'behavioural surplus', fabricated into 'prediction products', traded in a behavioral futures market. Then, to optimise profit, those in possession of this 'instrumentarian power' move from just knowing our behaviour to shaping it, putting themselves in a position of uncontrolled power.

In political terms, surveillance capitalism doesn't just feed on labor, but on every aspect of human behaviour.

Zuboff points out we are not the products of these free services, but the raw material, used to construct a product. Ownership of the means of behavioural modification eclipses ownership of the means of production as the fountainhead of capitalist wealth and power. Operating outside of a framework of accountability, surveillance capitalism is anti-democratic.

To combat surveillance capitalism, we have to realise that it does not equate the digital nor technology. It's only a particular implementation that is not inevitable, but a consequence of the overriding objectives of its masters.

Zuboff identifies the start of the surveillance capitalist journey with Apple's introduction of the iPod and iTunes, catering to markets of one, as remedies for inequality and exclusion. But, this shift to individualism dove tailed with the neoliberal economic paradigm of destroying individual agency.

Then, Zuboff identifies a 'first modernity', the rise of industrial mass production, a 'second modernity', the rise of markets of one and individualism and, now a 'third modernity', the rise of surveillance capitalism, where the wide acceptance of neoliberal policies allows capitalists to disconnect from their social context, fostering societal instability and social inequality.

Google's move into surveillance capitalism started in the early 2000s, with the insight to not target search terms as such for monetisation, but to have the value of these search terms be defined by their usage, making the users of Google's search engine the raw material of the product Google was selling.
Google became a seller of ads, optimising the prediction of behaviour, directly also putting value on the ability to change users' behaviour.

Then, with the absence of meaningful laws in the virtual domain, with the state's need for monitoring and control after 9/11, where Zuboff uses the term 'surveillance exceptionalism', the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have become modern-day robber barons, bending laws to themselves and their own.
It also explains why these players want to avoid being seen as 'publishers', which would require to police their own content, weeding out extremism, because these extremes are in themselves desirable data points which big tech can use to, in turn, exploit the masses.

Politically, big tech firms obfuscate their intentions and behaviour by blurring its public and private interests, through a revolving door where individuals move from politics to business and back, while heavily influencing relevant academic work.

Meanwhile, in the hunt for behavioural surplus, capturing information on how users behave, it makes perfect sense why Google and Facebook work on such a wide range of products, and why they are such strong supporters of the 'Internet of Things'. Each move into unchartered territory has the promise of reaping huge amount of behavioural data, which in turn allows big tech to predict future behaviour and sell that information.
It is why Google shuts down so many of its ventures; they simply don't produce enough data to make them worthwhile.

Zuboff describes a tool in Google and Facebook's arsenal, the 'dispossession cycle', first tried and tested with Google's Gmail; It goes from incursion to habituation to adaptation to redirection.
First, Google moves into a field where no legal boundaries exist, like the comprehensive scanning of email, or the collection of street view. Then, even if there are complaints, operating at the slow pace of democracy, we become habituated to the incursion. Then, if a large enough push back exists, cosmetic adaptations are followed by a redirection of the focus of the complainants.

Zuboff identifies Google's mantra:

1. Human experience is free for the taking;
2. We have the right to convert this into behavioural data;
3. We have the right to own that data;
4. We have the right to know what that data discloses;
5. We have the right to decide how to use that knowledge;
6. We have the right to preserve these rights.

This leads to a 'division of learning', where the machine knows, business models decide and capital decides who decides.
To explain with an example, Facebook shows you your newsfeed, 'optimised' for you, based on your past actions. But Facebook also keeps a vast trove of data on your behaviour that doesn't feed back to you, but is used to optimise predictions that are sold to third parties. This 'hidden data' Zuboff calls the 'shadow text'.
The result is that the likes of Google and Facebook are separated from the people through an insurmountable barrier of knowledge.

So, surveillance capitalism is inherently undemocratic. Only answering to the logic of accumulation, producing knowledge inaccessible to ourselves, while, as it is not the state, and relevant laws are absent, unaccountable for its own behaviour.
So, now, it's corporations that know, it's the market form that decides, and it's the competitive struggle between surveillance companies which decides who decides.

This one-sided control leads to the 'uncontract'. The data collector acts, and we behave, not knowing how our actions are influenced in real time, while a future of ubiquitous computing and a globe covering IoT is presented as inevitable.

Zuboff sees the dispossession of human experience as the original sin of surveillance capitalism. She then calls ‘rendition’ the process of turning experience into data; we talk about who owns our data, but forget that this data does not need to exist in the first place.
There can be no surveillance capitalism without rendition, but rendition is not automatically followed by surveillance capitalism. Data can not be collected and, if collected, does not need to result in profit margins for external parties.

In short, it is not you who searches Google, it's Google which searches you.

This manipulation of our real-time behaviour Zuboff calls ‘actuation’ and provides ‘economies of action’, achieving behaviour modification through tuning, herding and conditioning; “we are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance”. Because of that, our 'future tense is endangered'.

How did we get there:

1. Surveillance capitalism is unprecedented in scope.
2. Invasion of the public and private by obfuscation.
3. Societal preference for businesses to self regulate.
4. Fortification through political lobbying.
5. The dispossession cycle, normalizing abuse before regulation can curtail it.
6. Our dependency on services provided.
7. Self interest of benefitting players, like small businesses.
8. Fear of missing out.
9. Our identification with the successful leaders of the surveillance capitalists.
10. Our viewing these leaders as authorities because of their success.
11. Social persuasion.
12. Lack of meaningful alternatives.
13. Feeling of inevitabilsm.
14. Exploitation of human frailty.
15. Ignorance of the abused.
16. The speed at which these processes operate.

Not unlike totalitarianism, instrumentarianism operates through behavioural modification, not through violence or the threat of it. This hidden hand of instrumentarian power, Zuboff calls 'Big Other'.
Big Other is radically indifferent, it does not care if news is fake, as long as it generates behavioural surplus, generates data-points that identifies how we behave, which then can be monetised.
And. for Big Other, outlier behaviour serves no purpose. Individualism is unpredictability, which can not be sold; Only predicted outcomes are desired.

Surveillance capitalists aim for unfettered freedom as well as perfect knowledge. In a situation like this, there is no uncertainty, there is no invisible hand of the market.
Then there is the shift from a reciprocity between customers as employees and business, to users as sources of raw material sold.
That, in addition to the very small workforce employed by surveillance capitalists also means a political reciprocity between labor and capital is no longer required for big tech to flourish.

Then, surveillance capitalism’s radical indifference is geared towards growth by any means.

All this makes surveillance capitalism profoundly undemocratic. It is tyranny with the objective of dominating human nature.

Zuboff doesn't mention it, but it appears that one way of tricking this machine, is to feed it bad data. The machine monitors what you do, so you have to make it appear you do what you do not. So, say, run a bot on your machine that behaves like a person, starting programs, searching for information, except that all actions are nonsensical.

Zuboff finishes: be the friction.

She could have used less words, though.


Zuboff occasionally throws in some real-world surveillance examples; Roomba which sold maps of individual users' houses, collected by the vacuum cleaners; Vizio, a manufacturer of smart TVs generating 100 billion(!) data points per day, selling this data to third parties which were then able to trace this back to individual users.
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Reading Progress

January 20, 2019 – Shelved
January 20, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
September 7, 2019 – Shelved as: current-affairs
September 7, 2019 – Finished Reading

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