Surveillance Capitalism (Colonizing Human Behavior)

By Audio Pervert - 5/01/2023

The collection and analysis of data, has rapidly changed the way economies operate. The emerging order, within this globally connected society based on rapid information exchange, begins to reveal a new form of capitalism - surveillance capitalism. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft (the big 5) now dominate the majority of the internet. Shoshana Zuboff's book 'Surveillance Capitalism' is a dark and veritable discourse, about the deep colonization of our private lives, our behavior serving the emerging economies, mandated by the super-corporations, who have subverted laws, safety, even democracy, morals and privacy.

Cited by the New Yorker as part of "100 most important books" in 2019, Zuboff's decade long research reveals the making of limitless digital frontiers and the rise of Surveillance Capitalism. The mapping of our daily lives as 'Surplus Behavioral Data'. Zuboff demystifies the lofty initial promises of the internet, which were rapidly sequestered by the Silicon Valley, big corporations, the state and public institutions. That Metaverse, AI, Chat GPT, Smart Homes etc are not just dazzling new frontiers aimed at the public, but contrary, comparable to an "unilateral claiming" (colonization) of private human experience.


Our Surplus - The Behavioral Data
A data scientist commented the other day, “the underlying norm of all software, browsers and apps designed now is data what way one uses the data depends on the business objectives...”. 'Google Classroom' is just one example, of how systems can be written specifically to target children. New Mexico attorney general filed a class-action suit against Google in 2022, citing its "...various illegal data extraction practices". At the back end of Chrome and Android, an app called Trojan is collecting physical locations, search histories, of children as young as 12 years old. Trojan is grabbing our YouTube viewing habits, contact lists, passwords, indications, voice recordings etc. Yes indeed Google has agreed to set up "a privacy and online safety initiative specifically for children", however it's previous record and interventions have been totally contrary to what it's principle operative is all about - extracting Surplus Behavioral Data (SBD). "It’s common to find all sorts of malware lurking under what seem to be harmless apps on the official Google Play store...there are hundreds of apps, mostly free, which may contain Harly Trojan that scrubs through personal data on mobile phones..." states Kaspersky (leading anti-virus company). Google's big share of revenues, worth around $163 billion in 2022, shows how fundamental SBD is to it's global domination. As every form of colonization is dependent on raw material and a yet to be colonized community, so is the case with SBD. Google serving targeted ads, while constantly amplifying it's search products / services. Hence our SBD is what Google collects and dispenses to advertisers, as qualified traffic. Indeed, it's a bit preposterous to imagine the size of this dragnet, our collective SBD approximately equates to 4.62 billion transactions per day ( 2023)

Similar to General Motors, Ford and Toyota as the "petri dishes" of the new forms of Capitalism in the 20th century, Google is a "humongous progeny of sorts", a century later. The analysis then reveals Google as the limitless, if not eventual repository (of decades and centuries) of scholarly, journalistic, theoretical, experiential, visual, audible etc record of not only humanity, but the entire planet itself. As Zuboff explains "creating an ever-growing supply of raw material (more and more behavioral data) as well as generating more real-estate for this data to be put to use (more and more advertising surfaces)...Google controls both ends of the system, and therefore instituted a systematic approach to making money online: Surveillance Capitalism. In this system, accumulation of data is key! And that accumulation is personalized... it's about each one of us at the generating and receiving end, while the revenues are mandated by external capitalist forces..."

Privacy!? What's the big deal?

“Do people care about privacy?” asks Lauren Jackson (NYT 2022). It’s important, but where do we even start? At the beginning of it all, we have allowed Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Twitter, Tik-Tok etc to build huge asymmetries of knowledge, about our society, about people and about our daily lives. Instead of living in "a golden age of the democratization of knowledge" (Zuboff), the internet has become something none of us expected. The biggest info-tech and social media brands have steadily restructured online business as well as sponsored "the wholesale destruction of privacy"(Zuboff). As experts allover the world hailed the incoming age of "Big Data" they tacitly ignored what data extraction and it's analysis would lead to. As Hal Varian writes " what everyone is talking about... big data. That raw material necessary for surveillance capitalism's novel manufacturing processes. Extraction based not on physical materials but on private, social and economic relations. That raw material, call it behavioral surplus, becomes the infrastructure with which the firm asserts authority to achieve economies-of-scale... Terra farming upon our experiences, daily behavior, online navigation, offline mental and physical states, and overall privacy". Makes us wonder, if there is any real privacy, or shelter, when we are online, and what actually makes us connected to it all the time?

Ever new apps and 'smart gadgets' offer new (and perhaps irresistible) ways to waste time. Our time wasted = to their profit and expansion. In cubicles, public spaces, while traveling and inside homes allover the world over, we are bombarded by a relentless stream of notifications, blinking animations, beeps and symbols from various gadgets connected online. Digital distraction is synonymous with information overload. Society in motion, appears as a hyperbole of attention deficient citizens.

Chris Wellisz (IMF) speaks of falling productivity at a global level, contrary to the image created by tech-based educators, exponents of work-from-home, gig-economies and social media. "Employers cited mobile phone use and texting as the biggest time killers, followed by the Internet, office gossip, and social media. Consequences include lower-quality work, reduced morale among workers who must pick up the slack for distracted colleagues, and missed deadlines..." The hype and hoopla of a "digitally connected and secure world" is perhaps being overshadowed by a fall in productivity and the relentlessly expansion of SBD, seen across every human convention that can be mapped yet. The knowledge based economy seems contrary to our personal productivity and not just privacy. What we seemed to have forgotten or worse given up is 'oversight'. Our sight is transfixed somewhere else? The differences in our profile, taste, language, age, sex aside, what predicates eventually is the algorithm, feeding us and occasionally rewarding us. Imagine yourself as a slot machine player, rewarded at random intervals, by a surprise payout (a new message, a comment, likes, hearts, pop-notifications, short news, weather forecasts, discounts, new job offers etc etc. The prospect of another payout (reward) is enough to keep the player pulling the handle - tapping your mobile phone.

Across large and small industry, businesses, private and public institutions, sectors of entertainment, music, arts, hospitality etc the transition is clear. Towards systems mandated by artificial intelligence, installing deeper surveillance and enabling extraction of data which is owned by a small number of but immensely powerful corporations. Being celebrated with bold taglines like "anything is possible when everything is connected" and "data is the new oil" and "the internet of things". The Harvard Business Review reminds us that "Information technology is revolutionizing products. Once composed solely of mechanical and electrical parts, products have become complex systems that combine hardware, sensors, data storage, microprocessors, software, and connectivity in myriad ways..." Welcome to the Internet of Things!

We are now living with conventional gadgets like fridges, coffee-machines, clocks, cameras, speakers, washing machines, thermostats, even doors, windows, cars, lifts, medical equipment, etc etc which can constantly send and receive data. Machines which can monitor and map our daily existence. Indeed the IRobot by Roomba does an amazing job of cleaning. It also maps the house into raw data. It has great sensors, eyes and also ears. But why does a robotized cleaner want to listen to us, via it's internal (hidden) audio-receptors? Never mind as that is a precondition of surveillance and all the private information is collected, disseminated, exploited as raw material. What better than doing actual work, when a robot can sweep the floor, or Alexa can suggest the next tune or a fridge can tell you what to eat!

The loss of privacy and the violation of civil liberties, has been sidelined by millions and millions of people, at multiple levels and perhaps with reason. For example students, scholars, journalists, doctors, scientists and teachers across the world, save huge amounts of time, of tedious research, with instantaneous visual, oral and written information at virtually no cost. Twenty years ago that velocity and quantity of information transfer was something unimaginable. With such exuberance, also comes mass exfoliation, of data, of mapping every movement, phone call, transaction, search, email message etc leaving digital trails, that can be exploited by corporations, business outlets, the police, politicians, even a nosy neighbor, hackers or an all intrusive government. Possibly we cannot block everything (and everyone) nor can we just worship this new info-utopia in the making.

To wrap up the point, surveillance capitalism does not abandon it's earlier capitalist nature. Of ​extraction, ​competition​, profit maximization, productivity and infinite growth. As Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other information based super-corporations bitterly compete for greater global domination, the wars are not based on new continents, ships and soldiers but on the "Discovery of Behavioral Surplus" (Zuboff). Like earlier forms of colonization (geographic, linguistic, cultural etc) SBD also introduces its own distinct laws of motion, of conquest and control. Behavior and response too can be colonized and subverted to serve economies of scale and scope. Our behavioral modification is synonymous with the proliferation of surveillance capitalism and artificial intelligence. A limitless sensor of human behavior or a paradigm shift as to how society operates - that you could decide for yourself. The irony can be summed up by an internal memo of Google, which reads "....based on the recent output, we are less valuable than others' bets on our future behavior..."

DOWNLOAD PDF  Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

  • Share:


0 -