Surveillance capitalism and anti-capitalism

As discussion around surveillance capitalism grows, Foundry4 asked writer and AI expert Calum Chace to share his views...

In the last few years, the computer scientists and entrepreneurs who fuel Silicon Valley have gone through a bewildering series of transformations. Once upon a time they were ostracised nerds, then it all went wrong, and now they are the tech bros; the anti-heroes in the dystopian saga of society’s descent into algorithmic rule by Big Brother, soon to be followed by extermination by Terminators.

Techlash is in full swing, and Shoshana Zuboff is its latest high priestess. She is professor emerita at Harvard Business School, and author of “Surveillance Capitalism”, a 600-page book on how the tech giants, especially Google and Facebook, have developed a “rogue mutation of capitalism” which threatens our personal autonomy, and democracy.

Zuboff is beyond scathing about Google and Facebook: even favourable reviewers agree she is extreme. She likens tech giant executives to the Spanish conquistadores, with the rest of us as the indigenous populations of South America, and rivers of blood as the consequence. (She doesn’t specify which countries have lost 90% of their populations as a result of their citizens using Facebook.) She describes Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, as the “Typhoid Mary” of this socio-economic plague.

Apparently, the goal of the tech giants is not just to understand our behaviour so they can enable other organisations to sell things to us. It is to control us and turn us into robots, “to automate us”. She quotes a data scientist: “We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make [our victims] dance.”

Zuboff wants governments to “interrupt and outlaw surveillance capitalism’s data supplies and revenue flows… outlawing the secret theft of private experience.” After all, “We already outlaw markets that traffic in slavery or human organs.” The old phrase (which pre-dates the Web) “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product” isn’t extreme enough for Zuboff: she compares the social media platforms to elephant poachers who kill us in order to steal our ivory tusks. “You are not the product … You are the abandoned carcass.”

Zuboff claims that Google’s founders are fully aware of the harms their company causes, and that originally, they swore off using our personal data so perniciously. They were effectively bullied into exploiting the opportunity – and into becoming billionaires – by the demands of the stock market.

She also claims that surveillance capitalism would not have evolved if there had not been a corresponding rise in state surveillance. She claims that in 2000, the FTC was poised to regulate the tech giants, but the war on terror prompted by the 9/11 attacks drained away any support for privacy campaigns in US government circles.

A reasonable thesis?

If we give Zuboff the benefit of the doubt, and push the hyperbole to one side, is her thesis reasonable? Do the tech giants steal our data and sell it to new breeds of capitalists who use it to control us? If we take it literally, much of it is simply mistaken. In general, Google and Facebook do not steal our data. You have to accept their terms and conditions in order for them to access and use it, although of course, none of us read those conditions, and most of us have no detailed knowledge of what they contain. The tech giants could and should do a much better job of explaining that.

It is also untrue that Google and Facebook have spawned new types of capitalists: for decades, firms have spent significant sums of money to obtain data about their customers. In the bad old days when junk mail clogged up hallways, companies desperately wanted to avoid wasting money sending mailers about lawnmowers to people living in high-rise apartments. Direct marketing was a large and growing industry well before the invention of the Web.

Nevertheless, there is clearly a genuine need for debate about whether Google, Facebook, and other tech giants are harming us with the ways they use our data. Certainly it can be disconcerting when you search for information about a product category, and then notice that ads for companies selling that product are following you around the internet for several hours or even days. Many people find this exploitative, dishonest, creepy, and intrusive.

There are plenty of instances where the tech giants, and indeed many other organisations, have obtained personal data improperly, mis-used it, and / or failed as its custodians. The FTC has just imposed its largest-ever fine on Facebook for allowing its customers data to be mis-used by Cambridge Analytica, although some people felt that $5 billion was too trivial a sum.

But does that mean that the business model is illegitimate? An important test of that is whether consumers want it. It is patronising and simply wrong to say that the population as a whole does not know what is going on. Most users do know that companies sell access to our data to companies that want to show us adverts, and in return we get free stuff. “Take my data and give me free shit”, as one consumer put it. We might be foolish to accept this trade-off (it might even be “false consciousness”, as the Marxists like to say) but governments would ban it at their peril – and the ones subject to elections don’t.

Evidence of behaviour - fair use?

Zuboff claims that “research over the past decade suggests that when users are informed of surveillance capitalism’s backstage operations, they want protection, and they want alternatives,” but most of the evidence points to the contrary. Erik Brynjolffson, a professor of economics at MIT, ran a survey in 2018 to assess how much Americans would have to be paid to avoid using the products provided for free by the tech giants. Facebook and other social media were valued at $322 a year, and search was valued at an eye-opening $17,500. Globally, Facebook makes $80 per person for using our data, so on the face of it, the deal is not too shabby. (Americans are more profitable, at $105 per head, and Europeans rather less so, at $35.)

Those who find the trade-off unacceptable are in no way obliged to engage in it. Duck Duck Go is by all accounts a pretty good substitute for Google Search, and sells itself on not using your data. I have never used Facebook, not because of privacy concerns, but because I reckon I would spend too much time looking at cat videos.

The term “Surveillance capitalism” was invented by Zuboff in a 2014 essay. It’s a great phrase, but it is deliberately misleading. The Cambridge Dictionary defines surveillance as “the careful watching of a person or place, especially by the police or army, because of a crime that has happened or is expected.” That is not what Google is doing. It is trying to figure out what makes me and a thousand other people like me choose to buy a particular type of car and when, and then sell that information to a firm that sells cars. The data about me is useless unless combined in that way, and it is data that I could not possibly sell on my own.

Personalised capitalism

An alternative to the phrase surveillance capitalism would be personalised capitalism. It would be more accurate, but of course it wouldn’t be as scary, or generate as many headlines.

The place we should look for dangerous surveillance is not the capitalists, but the state. China’s developing Social Credit system shows clearly where the real threat lies. Capitalists just want to sell us fizzy black water and cars. Governments provide security and a welfare safety net, but in order to do this they lay claim to between a third and a half of our income, they send some of us to war, and they lock some of us up. It seems that many Chinese are intensely relaxed about Social Credit: they say it improves public behaviour, and they argue that there is nothing to worry about if you have done nothing wrong. This is a very poor argument. State surveillance leads to self-censorship, and if the levers of state power fall into malign hands – which from time to time they do – then a powerful surveillance network becomes a disaster for everyone.

A lot of the current wave of techlash is actually anti-capitalism. The real problem with the tech giants in the eyes of many of their critics is they are too big, too powerful, and above all, they make too much profit. And profit is a Bad Thing. This may not be not true of Zuboff, who declares herself a fan of good old-fashioned capitalism.

It is ironic that the tech giants are currently among the most hated targets of the left, since their founders and staff are so clearly left-leaning themselves. In attacking the tech giants for spreading fake news they are surely missing the most egregious culprits. For instance the blatant lies told about the EU by Murdoch’s News International, the Telegraph, and the Daily Mail are what gave us Brexit, and gave permission to racists and homophobes to re-emerge blinking into the daylight.

In any discussion of the future, timing is important. The data being hoovered up and exploited by the tech giants today is mostly about our shopping habits. We are on the verge of an era when we will generate tsunamis of data about our health. Apple Watches are showing the way, and before long most of us will wear devices which take readings of our pulse, our sweat, our eye fluids, our electrical impulses, analyse some of it on the device and stream more of it to the cloud. Even those of us who are relatively relaxed about Google’s privacy terms today should be thinking about who we want to be custodians of our minute-by-minute health data.