Who do you want to determine your future?
Having read Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, we wanted to share with you some of the key themes of the book, as they impact upon all of us as individuals, but also as citizens of the world. The question posed in this blog is ‘who do you want to determine your future?’ We suspect that your answer will neither be Google nor Facebook!
Zuboff’s book reveals a chilling vision of the near-future, in which companies and States are able to influence our decision-making ability based on data collected, processed and shared by them. The book takes us through the historical development of surveillance capitalism, which Zuboff describes as a rogue mutation of capitalism.
It is interesting to note that part of the reason for the lack of regulation in the industry (which might be best described as ‘data-mining’) was caused by Governments’ needs (such as the US) to increase wide-scale military surveillance, to prevent terrorist activities, such as 9/11, re-occurring.
In her authoritative and detailed analysis of this new era, Zuboff explains the change of the usage and value of personal data (however minor and/or incidental), exploited by companies such as Google and Facebook (to name only a couple), leaving the reader with the clear understanding that these companies are not only utilising this data to market products and services to us, but also to seek to determine what products, services and opinions we will ‘elect’ in the future. Surveillance capitalism seeks to reduce uncertainty by using our data to accurately assess decisions which we have yet to make, with a worryingly increasing degree of certainty. This would enable companies to market directly to individuals, who are, for example, walking past a coffee shop, and often stop for a coffee at that time of day, thus enticing them to enter the shop to purchase a product.
Surveillance capitalists take ownership of our data, in many cases irrespective of our knowledge, understanding or consent, and then use that information to seek to impose upon us decisions which we are herded towards, through their marketing techniques. Zuboff quotes Frank Pasquale in her book as stating: “[d]espite [Google and Facebook’s] claims of objectivity and neutrality, they are constantly making value-laden, controversial decisions. They help create the world they claim to merely ‘show’ us.” This is evidenced, for example, in a social media newsfeed, where algorithms, derived from surplus data, select and order the content and search results.
Whilst current online marketing practices are widely known and generally understood, the continual accumulation of data used by surveillance capitalists to know everything about us, enables them to immerse themselves into every aspect of our day-to-day lives, thus enabling marketing to become more ‘certain’ in its outcome, through personalization in content, time and location.
We are all amazed, and find huge delight in, how the internet has enrichened our lives, but this enrichment comes at a cost, and part of that cost is paid by us sacrificing our rights to privacy to enable the ever-increasing technological advances to provide us with more and more information.
Examples quoted in the book include Alexa, Google Home, Pokémon Go, Google Glass, smartphones and our PCs. However, what is even more troubling is how surveillance capitalists are seeking to maximise the amount of data they collect about us, in formats such as voice recognition and facial recognition, to gain ever increased access to our data and our private lives. The reason they need this data is to increase their knowledge of our behaviours, in order to stand out from their competition with regards to marketing of messages to us, the ultimate consumers. Whilst we are the consumers of the ideas, products and services sold to us online, the companies and organisations wishing us to see those messages are the people paying for those messages to be broadcast to us. The individual does not pay the surveillance capitalist for their services, instead they pay, in kind, by providing the raw data which the surveillance capitalist needs in order to sell their services to their customers. The reduction of uncertainty in the message (and therefore the increase in the likelihood of the individual accepting the message), makes such data more valuable to the surveillance capitalist. The more raw data which the surveillance capitalist can accrue, the more valuable it becomes.
Not surprisingly, the usage of this data is not limited to marketing opportunities relating to goods and services, but goes further into the foundations of democracy itself. Examples, which may be well-known to many of our readers, include the impact of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in the Brexit vote and the alleged Russian interference in the last US presidential election. A more extreme and direct example was given of China, where State monitoring of individuals permeates every part of their citizens’ lives, such as schooling, travelling and work. Citizens considered to be ‘good’ are rewarded, whilst ‘bad’ citizens are punished, by, for example, restrictions on travel and the ability to purchase luxury goods.
The increased accumulation of what might appear to be ‘valueless’ data enables both companies and States to know many of our innermost thoughts, and to translate those into valuable assets, utilised by States and corporations to impact upon our autonomous decision-making.
At a time when the UK Government are seeking to impose stricter regulations on Social Media companies, it is crucial that we as individuals understand the importance of this intervention, not only in the context of children and vulnerable persons, but more widely with regards to the protection of our human rights in the murky international legal waters of ownership and protection of personal data.
Zuboff raises the difference between the EU and the US with regards to the lawful enforcement of privacy rights, and identifies the General Data Protection Regulation (‘GDPR’) as one potential defence to the increase of surveillance capitalism. As she rightly states however, it remains to be seen whether this piece of legislation acts as a ‘springboard’ to challenging the legitimacy of surveillance capitalism or not. She concludes that “[s]uch a victory would depend on society’s rejection of markets based on the dispossession of human expertise as a means to the prediction and control of human behaviour for others’ profit.”
The book is almost 700 pages in total (although much of the text is useful references), and thus, this short summary fails entirely to give sufficient understanding of the detailed and well-reasoned lines of argument set out by Zuboff, raising awareness of the threats caused by surveillance capitalism. Suffice to say, we would highly recommend this book to anybody interested in the future of democracy and the right to self-determination. It is not a textbook about data protection legislation but rather offers an intriguing insight as to how, in the absence of adequate safeguards, our ability to make independent decisions will be severely impacted by the relentless surge of surveillance capitalism.