Surveillance capitalism and anticapitalism

Over the past few years, the IT people and entrepreneurs who power Silicon Valley have undergone a bewildering series of transformations. Once upon a time, there were ostracized nerds. Then they were the lovable geeks of the Big Bang Theory TV show, and for a short time they were superheroes. (In case you were wondering, geeks wonder what weightless sex is like; nerds wonder what sex is like.) Then everything went wrong, and now they are the brothers of technology; the anti-heroes of the dystopian saga of society’s descent under the algorithmic rule of Big Brother, soon followed by extermination by Terminators.

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

Zuboff is beyond scathing about Google and Facebook: even favorable critics agree that she is extreme. She compares the rulers of the tech giants to the Spanish conquistadors, with the rest of us as the indigenous people of South America, and rivers of blood as a result. (It does not specify which countries have lost 90% of their population due to the use of Facebook by their citizens.) She describes Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, as the “Typhoid Mary” of this socio-economic scourge.

Apparently, the purpose of the tech giants isn’t just to understand our behavior so that they can allow other organizations to sell things to us. It is controlling us and transforming us into robots, “automating us”. She quotes a data scientist: “We learn to write music, then we let the music do.” [our victims] Dance.”

Zuboff wants governments to “shut down and ban the data supplies and revenue streams of surveillance capitalism … banning the secret theft of private experience.” After all, “We already ban markets that traffic in slavery or human organs. The old phrase (pre-web) “if you don’t pay for it, you are the product” isn’t extreme enough for Zuboff: she compares social media platforms to elephant poachers who kill us to steal our ivory tusks. “You are not the product… You are the abandoned carcass.”

Zuboff says the founders of Google are fully aware of the damage their business has done and originally vowed to use our personal data in such a pernicious way. They were effectively intimidated into exploiting the opportunity – and becoming billionaires – by the demands of the stock market.

She also argues that surveillance capitalism would not have evolved if there had not been a corresponding increase in state surveillance. She claims that in 2000, the FTC was on the verge of regulating tech giants, but the war on terror sparked by the 9/11 attacks drained all support for privacy campaigns in government circles. US government.

If we give Zuboff the benefit of the doubt and dismiss the hyperbole, is his thesis reasonable? Are tech giants stealing our data and selling it to new races of capitalists who use it to control us? If we take it literally, much of it is just plain wrong. In general, Google and Facebook do not steal our data. You need to agree to their terms and conditions before they can access and use them, although we don’t read those terms, and most of us don’t have any detailed knowledge of what’s in them. Tech giants could and should do a much better job of explaining this.

It is also wrong that Google and Facebook have spawned new types of capitalists: For decades, companies have spent large sums of money to obtain data on their customers. In the bad old days, when junk mail clogged hallways, businesses desperately wanted to avoid wasting money mailing lawn mowers to people living in high-rise apartments. Direct marketing was a big and growing industry long before the invention of the web.

Nonetheless, there is clearly a real need for debate as to whether Google, Facebook, and other tech giants are harming us with the way they use our data. Granted, it can be confusing when you search for information about a product category and then notice that advertisements for companies selling that product follow you around the internet for hours or even days. Many people find it exploitative, dishonest, scary, and intrusive.

There are many instances where tech giants, and even many other organizations, have improperly obtained personal data, misused it, and / or failed as gatekeepers. The FTC just imposed its biggest fine on Facebook for allowing Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of its customers’ data, though some people felt that $ 5 billion was too small a sum.

But does this mean that the economic model is illegitimate? An important test is whether consumers want it. It is condescending and just plain wrong to say that the population as a whole does not know what is going on. Most people know that companies sell access to our data to companies who want to show us ads, 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 compromise (it might even be a ‘false conscience’, as Marxists like to say) but governments would forbid it at their peril – and those who are subject to elections do. not.

Zuboff claims that “research over the past decade suggests that when users are made aware of the behind-the-scenes operations of surveillance capitalism, they want protection and alternatives,” but most of the evidence points to the contrary. Erik Brynjolffson, economics professor at MIT, conducted a survey in 2018 to assess how much Americans should be paid to avoid using products provided for free by tech giants. Facebook and other social media were valued at $ 322 per year, and the research was valued at $ 17,500. Globally, Facebook earns $ 80 per person for using our data, so at first glance, the deal isn’t too shabby. (Americans are more profitable, at $ 105 per capita, and Europeans a little less, at $ 35.)

Those who find compromise unacceptable are under no obligation to engage in it. Duck Duck Go is in all respects a pretty good substitute for Google search and sells by not using your data. I never used Facebook, not for privacy reasons, but because I think I would spend too much time watching cat videos.

The term “surveillance capitalism” was coined by Zuboff in a 2014 essay. It’s a great sentence, but it’s deliberately misleading. The Cambridge Dictionary defines surveillance as “the watch attentively of a anybody Where place, above all speak police Where army, because of a criminality who has pass Where is expected. “That’s not what Google is doing. It’s 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 company that sells cars Data about me is useless if it is not combined in this way, and it is data that I could not sell on my own.

An alternative to the term surveillance capitalism would be personalized capitalism. It would be more specific, but of course, it wouldn’t be that scary, or generate as many headlines.

The place where we should look for dangerous surveillance is not the capitalists, but the state. The development of China’s social credit system clearly shows where the real threat lies. The capitalists just want to sell us carbonated black water and cars. Governments provide safety and a social safety net, but to do that, they claim between one-third and one-half of our income, they send some of us to war, and they lock up some of us. It seems that many Chinese people are extremely relaxed about Social Credit: they say it improves public behavior, and they argue that there is nothing to worry about if you haven’t done anything wrong. This is a very bad argument. State surveillance leads to self-censorship, and if the levers of state power fall into malicious hands – which they do from time to time – then a powerful surveillance network becomes a disaster for everyone. world.

Much of the current wave of techlash is actually anti-capitalism. The real problem with tech giants in the eyes of many of their detractors is that they’re too big, too powerful, and most importantly, they’re making too much profit. And profit is a bad thing. Zuboff, who claims to be a fan of good old-fashioned capitalism, might not, but Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders certainly do. Corbyn and Sanders are just as populist as the alt-right, and just as dangerous. They willfully ignore the enormous advantages offered by modern capitalism, and they seek to destroy it.

It’s ironic that tech giants are among the left’s most hated targets right now, because their founders and staff are so clearly left-wing themselves. By attacking tech giants for spreading fake news, they’re surely missing out on the most egregious culprits. For example, the blatant lies told about the EU by Murdoch’s News International, the Telegraph, and the Daily Mail are what gave us Brexit and allowed racists and homophobes to come back into the open.

In any discussion about the future, timing is important. The data sucked up and exploited by tech giants today is primarily about our buying habits. We are at the dawn of an era where we will generate tsunamis of data on our health. Apple Watches are leading the way and most of us will soon be wearing devices that will measure our pulse, sweat, eye fluids, electrical impulses, analyze some of it on the device, and stream more to the cloud. Even those of us who are relatively relaxed about Google’s privacy terms today should think about who we want to be the custodians of our minute-by-minute health data.

And maybe further, when AI, biotech, and other tech are powerful enough and cheap enough to allow a grumpy teenager to slaughter thousands of people, what then does privacy cost? ? When a mega-death is valued at a few hundred dollars, can we avoid the universal panopticon?

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Estelle D. Eden

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