Surveillance Capitalism Exploits the Choices We Make
Thanks to technology, our actions in the present are commodifying our own future.
Once upon a time, businesses were content to work with what they knew from the past, adjusting their actions for a mysterious, risk-ridden future. Today’s tech giants won’t allow such uncertainty. They monitor and process our behavior in the present to model and control our common future.
Knowledge of the general trends of today’s marketplace, once considered strategic, is now branded as stale news. Today’s businesses focus on a single aim: to own our profiles and thus orient, if not control, our future behavior. This has become the principal value of the internet as a commercial medium. And this is why we all have the duty to be active users of the internet. In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff explains how our own lives are being shaped by what commercial companies can reliably predict about our future actions.
In an interview with The Intercept’s Sam Biddle, Zuboff explains how the tech giants glean and exploit our online choices, algorithmically creating data they can market to interested parties. “What are those guys really buying? They’re buying predictions of what you’re gonna do. There are a lot of businesses that want to know what you’re going to do, and they’re willing to pay for those predictions.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A valuable social service, once produced by seers, visionaries and professional analysts, that has now become a commodity generated by algorithms capable of processing the full range of choices individual consumers have made and continue making
Biddle describes the message of the book as a presentation of “the gothic algorithmic daemons that follow us at nearly every instant of every hour of every day to suck us dry of metadata.” These daemons belong to the surveillance capitalists, who surveille not for our security, but for the potentially commercial value of the data they collect, process and sell to interests seeking to shape our future acts for their own profit. In a fitting analogy with the stock market, where traders speculate on “futures” — the upward or downward trend in the value of an asset — Zuboff remarks, “Now we have markets of business customers that are selling and buying predictions of human futures.”
The “hidden persuaders” of Madison Avenue described by Vance Packard in 1957 now belong to a distant past. They looked for creative ways of appealing to our unknown tastes and predilections, hoping their window dressing would attract our eye. It was surreptitious and often devious, but consumers had the choice of tuning out and the persuaders had no idea of what we were up to. We controlled our own future. Now not only do the tech giants have an idea of what we’re up to today, they have algorithms that are designed to guide us into our future.
Zuboff sees this as a radical challenge to both our free will and our conception of time. Previously, the past was history, the memory of both individuals and communities. The present was our field of action, where we were free to make decisions and eventually change those decisions in the future. But the new conception of commercial time abolishes the distinction between past, present and future, exploiting the first two and modeling the third. As Zuboff protests, “They have no right to my future tense.”
Biddle’s reference to daemons draws on both ancient and modern history. For the ancient Greeks, a daemon was “a semi-divine spirit, usually created when a noble person or a hero dies. These beings act as a go-between for gods and mortals, delivering divine messages and blessings to mortals or reporting bad behavior to the gods.” Daemons helped ancient Greeks to deal with the uncertainty of their fate. The concept later evolved to eventually become what in the Christian West we called our “guardian angels.” For the modern world, a daemon is a purely technical term designating “a program that runs continuously and exists for the purpose of handling periodic service requests that a computer system expects to receive.”
Zuboff explains our willingness to be dependent on technology as the consequence of a feeling of abandonment. Neither the gods nor public institutions seek to protect us. “Surveillance capitalism in general has been so successful because most of us feel so beleaguered, so unsupported by our real-world institutions, whether it’s health care, the educational system, the bank,” she says. Unlike ancient Greece, we have no friendly daemons to guide or look after us and so we accept a host of potentially unfriendly ones programmed by people who have no interest in our well-being. Zuboff calls these suppliers of modern daemons a “massive juggernaut of private capital aiming to confuse, bamboozle, and misdirect.”
These new owners and interpreters of our data have collapsed our traditional notion of time and distorted our space-time in ways Albert Einstein could not have imagined. They can’t steal our past, since no one can change it, but they are free, without consulting us, to exploit their reading of the traces we have left. Everything we do in the present nourishes their power to control our future. Their aim is to better understand and program our future than we can do on our own.
We can individually rebel and resist, but statistically they will always be the winners.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.