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Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has been widely criticised for being too apocalyptic about surveillance and too apologetic about capitalism, but this hasn't hindered its success. This week she chided Nick Clegg, Facebook's inhouse apologist, for placing the burden of improving corporate practice on the democratic state, despite this being precisely her own remedy for the ills that she diagnoses. Her thesis comes in two parts: the digital surplus extracted from users by companies like Google and Facebook has moved beyond "improving customer experience" to the creation of "prediction markets"; and these predictions extend beyond targeted advertising to the modification of behaviour. In her own words, "it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes." Though this is a criticism of capitalist practice, it is one that admires the ignorance that Hayek postulated and also shares his fear, outlined in The Road to Serfdom, that corporations would embrace "socialist planning" out of self-interest. In other words, this is an analysis that should appeal to an Orange Booker like Clegg.

The chief criticism of her thesis from the left is that she is simply describing capitalist ideology and how it reinforces itself through social processes, particularly consumerism. Her expectation of, and response to, such criticism has emphasised the epochal change as she sees it between a capitalism of mass society - the twentieth century model of social marketing and the commodification of taste - and a capitalism of the individual where corporate risk is mitigated by subtle, personalised coercion: "Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us." The irony is that Hayek's praise of "how little the individual participants need to know" for the price system to operate is matched by his praise of its ability "to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do".

There is clearly a large gap between the reality of surveillance capitalism's "prediction products" and Zuboff's totalitarian vision, which can be seen in examples as varied as AdChoices' monomania and the failure of Google Flu Trends. Likewise, there is no obvious theoretical mechanism, let alone empirical evidence, to support the claim that "Surveillance capitalism, run as the code for everyday life, erases both free will and free markets". This rhetoric not only employs the worst kind of Silicon Valley techno-babble (if there is an operating system for everyday life, I would have thought it more likely to be DNA than Google's search history), it also makes a none too subtle attempt to equate free markets with free will, though it's not clear whether Zuboff thinks free will will atrophy if markets are increasingly directed (the Hayekian position) or whether she thinks that the lack of exercise of free will make a mockery of the free market (which is dangerously close to the socialist critique that free will is a mockery if you are poor and socially powerless).


Zuboff is very much in the "saving capitalism from itself" camp, hence the need to present current developments as a perversion of the system rather than as the inevitable and not particularly radical evolution of the capitalist dynamic. This means ignoring much of the social history of surveillance and commercial coercion, from Edward Bernays through Mass Observation to The Hidden Persuaders. Instead, her historical focus is first on the generational break caused by the widespread adoption of information technology, which she sees as having created a fork in the road at the end of the era of Fordist managerialism; and second on the contingent coincidence in the early years of this millennium of the need for Google to monetise its technology, the erosion of the state's caution towards mass surveillance after 9/11, and the favourable environment created by two decades of neoliberal deregulation. In her telling, this combination of factors has encouraged the dominance of surveillance capitalism instead of an "advocacy-oriented" capitalism embedded in political and social institutions (the road not taken).

Where she does rely on social history is more in prognosis than diagnosis: "Surveillance capitalism thrives in the absence of law. In a way, this is good news. We have not failed to rein in this rogue capitalism; we’ve not yet tried. More good news: our societies successfully confronted destructive forms of capitalism in the past, asserting new laws that tethered capitalism to the real needs of people. Democracy ended the Gilded Age. We have every reason to believe that we can be successful again." This is the classic liberal dichotomy of unrestrained capitalism and technocratic regulation. In reality, the restraint of one by the other does not presume democracy: the original UK Factory Acts long-predated universal suffrage. Even in the context of the USA, the boast that democracy ended the Gilded Age ignores the role played in the Progressive Era by competing fractions of capital. The resistance to the encroachment of the market does not necessarily take a political form, even in a democracy, and the idea that laws tether capitalism to the needs of the people, rather than vice versa, is obviously na├»ve.

Not content with this hyperbole, Zuboff proceeds to cast surveillance capitalism as a threat to our very humanity: "What is abrogated here is our right to the future tense, which is the essence of free will, the idea that I can project myself into the future and thus make it a meaningful aspect of my present. This is the essence of autonomy and human agency. Surveillance capitalism’s 'means of behavioral modification' at scale erodes democracy from within because, without autonomy in action and in thought, we have little capacity for the moral judgement and critical thinking necessary for a democratic society." At root, this is a classic argument against democracy: the mass of people (in modern discourse this is usually reduced to a problematic minority - e.g. "the white working class") lack the judgement and capability necessary to make decisions about the management of the state. This is straight out of Plato's Republic, even if it's embellished with fashionable nods to the Frankfurt School (autonomy, critical thinking).


So, what is to be done? Zuboff is sceptical of personal data ownership as a solution, but her reasoning is that you cannot establish a link between an individual's data and the ultimately valuable predictions that it feeds into. "One example [of a solution] is privacy law’s call for 'data ownership'. It’s a misleading notion because it legitimates the unilateral taking of human experience – your face, your phone, your refrigerator, your emotions – for translation into data in the first place. Even if we achieve 'ownership' of the data we have provided to a company like Facebook, we will not achieve 'ownership' of the predictions gleaned from it, or the fate of those products in its prediction markets." One obvious retort to this problem of identification is common ownership. In other words, treating that aggregate data as a social resource. This idea, advocated by thinkers such as Evgeny Morozov, does not necessarily imply the creation of a nationalised data infrastructure. It could simply mean the effective taxation of the commercial data aggregators.

Zuboff's preferred solution is liberal regulation in which propriety and civic virtue are as important as technocratic diligence. "This means, at the front end, outlawing the secret theft of private experience. At the back end, we can disrupt revenues by outlawing markets that trade in human futures knowing that their imperatives are fundamentally anti-democratic. We already outlaw markets that traffic in slavery or human organs." The problem here is that most of this "theft" at the front end isn't at all secret. We willingly tick the end-user licence agreement because we (rightly) imagine the value of our digital exhaust to be negligible in isolation, and so the investment of time to actually read those voluminous T&Cs simply isn't worth it. We know that its true value is largely in an anonymised aggregate. The parallel with slavery or the sale of organs in this context is ridiculous.

The hunt for the responsible capitalist continues: "We need laws and regulation designed to advantage companies that want to break with surveillance capitalism. Competitors that align themselves with the actual needs of people and the norms of a market democracy are likely to attract just about every person on Earth as their customer." The idea that virtue is attractive is hardly borne out by the reality of the Internet (cf porn, clickbait, cat videos etc), while the idea that the state can encourage and reward good behaviour among "enlightened" firms, though central to conceptions of capitalism from the social democracy of Ed Miliband to the entrepreneurialism of Jeremy Hunt, is not supported by history. Firms are driven by capitalist competition to respond to incentives in an amoral fashion. If aligning with the needs of people conflicts with making a profit, then profit will typically win out.


Zuboff also has a tendency, long-standing in her work, to accept certain firms at their own virtuous estimation, most notably the counter-cultural rhetoric of Apple. This goes hand-in-hand with an over-estimation of the willingness of the state to restrain capitalism for the public good, as opposed to the preservation of property rights: "lawmakers will need to support new forms of collective action, just as nearly a century ago workers won legal protection for their rights to organise, to bargain collectively and to strike. Lawmakers need citizen support, and citizens need the leadership of their elected officials." This potted history ignores that lawmakers have spent most of their time trying to frustrate the rights of workers. Rights were won through struggle against the political system. That this story segues to a vision of a supportive citizenry and an enlightened leadership suggests that Zuboff doubts the unprecedented threat of surveillance capitalism will produce any discernible evolution in our politics, which is odd to say the least.

Evgeny Morozov, in an excellent long essay on Zuboff's intellectual development that places her ideas within the context of American industrial sociology, makes a key observation: "Zuboff’s definition of surveillance capitalism hinges upon whether behavioral surplus is used to modify behavior, not whether data extraction is visible." In other words, her thesis of the pernicious nature of surveillance capitalism rest on the proof that it is effective in its own terms - that it does modify behaviour in a profitable way for capitalists - rather than by virtue of it being pervasive. Given how cheap it is to harvest our data exhaust, compared to pre-digital methods of gathering consumer feedback and preferences, it is possible for capitalists to justify this "surveillance" purely on the grounds of reduced cost even if leads to no, or only marginal, improvements in the effective direction of consumer behaviour. Surveillance capitalism is just a more refined form of capitalism, and the real risk that surveillance technology poses is not to individual autonomy but to collective action against the state.

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