Once we searched Google, now Google searches us

Mark Kernan reviews Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff.

Mark Kernan
6 May 2019, 6.00am
Mural - are we living in the age of "Surveillance Capitalism"

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, , as Shoshana Zuboff points out in Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff shows in her brilliant book how all pervasive and omnipresent surveillance capitalism has exploited human experience to collect free raw material for translation into behavorial data. The “behavioural surplus” – our emotions, fears, our voices and our personalities-is then fed into “machine intelligence”, then reconfigured into predictive products. Products designed to anticipate what you will do today, tomorrow, and next week, as well as modify our behaviour through personalised and intrusive targeted advertising.

As Zuboff memorably puts it: once we searched Google, now Google (and the rest) searches us. We have been digitally dispossessed by the big tech’s remorseless drive for profit. Every aspect of our human experience is now ripe for extractive profit.

Our data, remorsely collected without our true consent, has been “weaponised against us with military efficiency”, in the words of Tim Cook of Apple, no less. Our digital profile lets companies know us better than we know ourselves.

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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 be algorithmically analysed so as to spot patterns and correlations from which future behaviour can be predicted. Perhaps in future, every time we are feeling a bit down we’ll get a zap of Oxytocin or Serotonin from our watches.

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

Both calls are self serving exercises in misdirection. The principles of trust, privacy & ethical behaviour were never high on the tech giants’ agenda as they grew their digital, social & cultural hegemonies. They’ve done little to protect our data (legally speaking, it’s their data). Laws protecting our ownership of 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. A few years ago former Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Ireland was the “best little country” in the world to do business in. Maybe that’s what he meant.

Zuckerberg came to Dublin recently and in an uncritical report by the Irish Times, said Europe’s GDPR rules were a “good foundation that encodes a lot of important values around people being able to choose how their data is used...”. But Facebook grew relentlessly on a quasi-religious drive of hovering up data almost at any cost. We should choose, and no one else, how our data is “used”, if it is to be used at all. Otherwise it will continue to be mercilessly mined, exploited & sold off to the highest bidder he meant. Even when you turn off tracking, Facebook still tracks you, still follows you across the internet.

To counteract recent bad publicity, 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". Zuckerberg’s recent statement about the GDPR sounded to many like similar PR deflection.

Shoshanna Zuboff sees the digital oligarchs as the robber barons of the 21st century. 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, argues Zuboff. For years they resisted regulation as hindering ‘innovation’. Privacy was, according to Zuckerberg, no longer a social norm anyway.

Yet the technologies that make the tech firms billions, 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.

As Noam Chomsky explained back in 2009, "The 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.”

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

“The technologies of freedom are turning into the machines of dominance,” warned Richard Barbrook & Andy Cameron twenty years ago in an extraordinarily prescient article, The Californian Ideology. In it they warned that Tim Berners Lee would agree.

Zuboff sets out how surveillance capitalism means privacy for the rich and a social media panopticon for the rest of us. This is no less than the incremental crippling of human freedom, happening too fast for us to 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.

Ruboff warns that Silicon Valley’s doctrine of technological inevitability “carries a weaponised virus of moral nihilism programmed to target human agency and delete resistance and creativity from the text of human possibility.”

Big Tech’s business model isn’t compatible with our rights, human values and even our democracies. 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? One 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 Californian monster has already arrived?

Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power is published by PublicAffairs, and is available now.

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