Big Tech and the Rise of Surveillance Capitalism

Photograph Source: Kencf0618 – CC BY-SA 3.0

A few years ago after the 2008 financial crash Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone described Goldman Sachs, that great titan of financial capitalism, as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Fast forward almost ten years and you could say the same, and much worse, about surveillance capitalism, according to Shoshana Zuboff author of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

This time though the squid is even bigger and it is jamming its blood funnel, via smart phones, smart TVs, tablets & soon even smart homes, into every last nook and cranny of our individual & collective privacy. The very thing that was suppose to set us free and serve us, as internet creator Tim Berners Lee had hoped, has now evolved as Lee said “into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.” The capture & commodification of our data, the predatory construction of user profiles and surveillance is in the DNA of surveillance capitalism. Cambridge Analytica is only the tip of the iceberg.

Zuboff points out in her brilliant book that all pervasive, stealthy and omnipresent surveillance capitalism has exploited human experience to collect free raw material for translation into behavorial data. The behavorial surplus-our emotions, fears, our voices and our personalities-is then fed into thinking ‘machine intelligence’, and then reconfigured into predictive products. Products specifically designed to anticipate what you will do today, tomorrow, and next week by means of behavorial modification. But not only does surveillance capitalism predict it also nudges us, influencing our behaviour through personalised and intrusive targeted advertising.

As she memorably puts it: once we searched Google, now Google (and the rest) searches us. We have been digitally dispossessed by the remorseless logic of big tech’s profit imperative. Whereas before it was the social and natural world that was subordinated to the market dynamic now, as she puts it, it is our very human experience that is ripe for extractive profit.

Our data, remorsely collected in recent years, without our true consent, has been weaponised against us with military efficiency, as stated by Tim Cook that is, of Apple, no less-creating a digital profile that lets companies know us better than we know ourselves.

Far-fetched or implausible? Ponder this.

Wearable emotion trackers have integrated sensors which measure & track the wearer’s biometric signals (skin temperature, heart rate & blood volume pulse). The data is then sent via wireless technologies such as Bluetooth to a connected appliance. A huge data-set set is then compiled, no doubt, which can bealgorithmically analysed so as to spot patterns and correlations from which future behaviour can be predicted. Perhaps every time we are feeling a bit down we’ll get a zap of Oxytocin or Serotonin from our watches.

This is all marketed as consumer wellness, but it is really an assault on our unconscious selves that helps businesses sell dodgy products and increase revenue. Our most intimate micro feelings & sensations mined in real time just for profit.

Think that outlandish? Ponder further. Amazon recently patented a “labour saving” design for wristbands that can track warehouse workers’ hands which uses ultrasonic vibrations to nudge them quicker into more efficient working practices. Not long ago this was the stuff of dystopian sci-fi, now electronic supervision from a distance so as workers can’tdeviate from narrowly assigned roles is considered a possibility.

Twenty or thirty years ago people would have been indignant at such proposals & personal violations. In the late 1980s German greens fought with the state over a national census: only sheep are counted, was the slogan. In 1983 the German constitutional court ruled that proposed census questions were gratuitously intrusive and that the information could possibly be abused. Times have changed.

Recently two of the elite digital priesthood, Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg, called for more privacy and regulation of the internet. Zuckerberg also promised thatFacebook “will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure.”

Both calls are brazen, self serving & cynical, and exercises in misdirection. The principles of trust, privacy & ethical behaviour were never high on their agenda as they grew their digital, social & cultural hegemonies. They’ve done little to protect our data-actually, legally speaking it’s their data-and that was the way it was always meant to be. Laws protecting our data have long since been undermined by a labyrinth of online contracts & terms and conditions that nobody reads, and what could be euphemistically called a light-touch regulatory framework.

As most of the US big tech European headquarters are based in Ireland this means the Irish data protection commission is the de facto European regulator since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into being.Yet the Irish data commissioner last year said it would not investigate Google’s secret tracking of the location of Android users. Best not to upset the empire too much with notions about privacy and freedom rights of individuals, I suppose. A few years ago former TaoiseachEnda Kenny said Ireland was the “best little country” in the world to do business in. Maybe that’s what he meant.

Silicon Valley, which has always been a kind of digital scientology populated by people with mid Atlantic upspeak as their lingua franca, have knowingly broken the social contract, now they’ve been caught and as their profits might suffer they are clamouring for regulation.

Zuckerberg came to Dublin recently and in a report by the Irish Times-which read like a facebook press release-he said of privacy rules in Europe via GDPR, “I think it’s a good foundation that encodes a lot of important values around people being able to choose how their data is used…” Facebook grew relentlessly on a quasi-religious drive of hovering up data almost at any cost. Drunk on behavorial metrics & tracking our interactions it behaved like that blood sucking giant squid, smelling money wherever it latches onto human curiosity & weakness.

Our data being ‘used’ (mercilessly mined, exploited & sold off to the highest bidder he meant) is just mere PR deflection, risible if it wasn’t so obvious. We should choose, and no one else, how our data is used, if it is to be used at all.

This is self-serving propaganda by Zuckerberg. Silicon Valley PR bullshit trying to boost its tarnished “brand reputation”. After all, even when you turn off tracking, Facebook still tracks you. Likewise, it follows you across the internet via code implanted in your browser. So much for Zuckerberg’s much lauded promiseto rebuild Facebook as a “privacy-focused” platform.

More risible still, Facebook is actually paying the Daily Telegraph as part of a marketing campaign to run positive stories about it titled: “Being human in the information age”. As Orwell might have said about these propaganda pieces: you couldn’t make this shit up.

Shoshanna Zuboff accurately points out that the digital oligarchs are the robber barons of the 21stcentury. Their business model has been premised on deliberate “psychic numbing” & our unconscious awareness of what they have been doing.

Big tech calling for regulation now is a cynical public relations strategy, for years they resisted regulation as it hindered ‘innovation’ & privacy was, according to Zuckerberg no longer a social norm anyway. Yet the technologies they make billions off were only made possible by massive state subsidies and public research contracts. Without the US defence budget, American tax dollars in other words, generations of computers would not have been built. State capitalism in other words recast as free-market entrepreneurialism.

Noam Chomsky writing in the 2009 explains it well:

“[T]he core of the economy relies very heavily on the state sector, and transparently so. So for example to take the last economic boom which was based on information technology — where did that come from? Computers and the Internet. Computers and the Internet were almost entirely within the state system for about 30 years — research, development, procurement, other devices — before they were finally handed over to private enterprise for profit-making.”

The silicon valley/state relationship is ongoing, and still reciprocal. Eric Schmidt-ex Google CEO- is now chairman of the Defense Innovation Board set up by the Pentagon which is made up of Silicon Valley experts, academics, and the US defence industry to ‘innovate’ (there’s that word again) & discuss the deployment of artificial intelligence in war, amongst other things. Innovation at this point is really a rhetorical device and a proxy for intrusion into our privacy, and worse.

Intriguingly, another board member Harvard law Professor Cass Sunstein a few years ago proposed the novel and somewhat Huxleyianidea of ‘cognitive infiltration’ where, “Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.” The road to hell is paved with good intentions & unintended outcomes- perhaps, perhaps not. Then again, maybe it’s time has finally come.

Privacy for the rich you could say, and the social media panopticon for the rest of us. This is no less than the incremental crippling of human freedom, just like the frog in slowly boiling water, it’s happened before we even notice what has been going on.

Why is all of this important? Constant surveillance creates a prison of the mind. The surveillance innovations of big tech strike straight at what makes us human-our privacy, our agency, our autonomy, and our need for solitude.

Without solitude how can we ever figure out who and what we are? Without it, we can’t be fully human and we certainly can never be fully free.

We were told by Reagan, Thatcher, & Blair & others that neoliberal capitalism was about freedom & liberating the individual from economic & economic slavery. The Internet promised similar emancipation, and yet we’ve ended up with surveillance capitalism.

Published over twenty years ago Richard Barbrook & Andy Cameron’s article The Californian Ideologynow looks extraordinarily prescient. In it they warned that “The technologies of freedom are turning into the machines of dominance.” Tim Berners Lee would agree. Bizarrely, for all of us, the Californian ideology of counter-cultural libertarian individualism & free market capitalism has converged & morphed into rapacious surveillance capitalism.

Tech utopianism is the new digital orthodoxy of the day and ‘innovation’ has become a proxy for deep intrusion into our privacy, and even, as Ruboff warns, our sense of self. Silicon Valley’s doctrine of technological inevitability she adds “carries a weaponised virus of moral nihilism programmed to target human agency and delete resistance and creativity from the text of human possibility.”

As has been said elsewhere, Big Tech’s business model isn’t compatible with our rights, human values and even our democracies. More importantly, it isn’t compatible with our very idea of being human. Zuboff finishes her timely book with a warning we should heed:

“It’s not ok for [our] every move, emotion, utterance, and desire to be catalogued, manipulated, and then used to surreptitiously herd us through the future tense for someone else’s profit.”

Billionaires like Eric Schmidt & Zuckerberg now have unprecedented asymmetries of knowledge-they know huge amounts about us, yet we know little about them. As Zuboff points out: “They aim to be unchallenged in their power to know, to decide who knows, and to decide who decides.”

But what if a state-corporate-bureaucratic monster emerges from all of this? Which, as David Samuels of Wired magazine warned, has the potential for “tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens” similar to China’s big brother state.What if the digital freedom we thought we had is not freedom at all; in reality it is a type of unfreedom masquerading as freedom? What if, during our induced digital somnolence, the monster squid has already arrived?

Mark Kernan is a Freelance Writer and Independent Researcher. Follow him @markkernan1