Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism

Earlier this year I read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and was strongly affected by it. It’s always hard to judge how new works will age, but I found her narrative a poignant comment on the last few decades of the information society: a society that evolved quite differently from what many expected from the early days of the Internet. I’m willing to guess that this book will remain relevant for a long time as a snapshot of the direction that society has taken in our present time. Morozov has analysed the book in more detail than I am capable of. Here I will try to relate some of Zuboff’s points to the ideas I have developed on this blog. Unlike Fleischer (Swedish) I feel that the length of this book is justified.

I’m not categorically against capitalism (yet), but I do believe that capitalism can take problematic forms and sustain negative processes in society. Zuboff argues that what our contemporary social/behavioural data-driven internet giants represent is nothing less than a genuinely new form of capitalism that is essentially dependent on the need to observe and predict (ultimately, influence) increasingly minute forms of human behaviour. All those accidental data leaks from mobile apps, etc., are not accidental. She draws liberally on Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) to make her case. There’s ample room to draw on Heidegger (enframing/gestellung), but for some reason, Zuboff chooses not to go there.

Humans wish to live in freedom (we usually agree) and perhaps do live in freedom. But what is this freedom? One definition would be that free actions do not have a calculable cause, need not be rational. In a certain way, freedom is the freedom to be arbitrary, to be irrational. This might not mean that causes do not exist, but it may mean that the right to conceal causes is important.

But from a systems point of view, entirely free, as in unconstrained, humans (in a vacuum, or a blank space devoid of meaningful relations or objects, etc) are not free. Probably, we feel most free when we are constrained to the appropriate degree: we need a floor to stand on, momentum to move with, fixed points to brace against… if the constraints are appropriate and partial in this way, then we develop a style of behaviour. In theory, we can imagine a situation where humans are so constrained that they can hardly make any choices from one moment to the next. Exploiting the gap between on one hand totally constrained and specified behaviour, and on the other hand the moderate constraints of an “appropriate” situation in the above sense, a situation with slack, we are free to play, to endow our actions with style, to perform. Perhaps this is one useful notion of freedom. Behavioural markets, then, purchase the right to choose our behavioural styles for us, to invisibly constrain us and introduce more friction. Perhaps they convert the slack into profit, perhaps they transfer it to other actors using money as a conduit. (Of course, we may think of the ability to endow one’s own actions with style in such a constraint gap as the flow of particularity.)

Why is human freedom still a scary notion to us, individually and collectively? Many consumers and techno-optimists would happily trust the voice of the algorithms rather than personally make choices. Many rush to record and give away vast quantities of data. Various forms of private and governmental surveillance combine in ways probably unimaginable to most who participate in it. Which unconscious drives are at work here? What do we hope to gain as a society? Can the internet, software, and modern electronics not be applied to nobler ends?

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