Recently, a popular technology company announced new hardware. This is hardly news; the company does that every year. What’s more interesting, is what said company’s director told the audience during the presentation. Through their devices, their smartphones, smart speakers and home cameras, the company is trying to connect people and their computers in such a subtle way that they won’t even realize it. He mentioned a term called “ambient computing”, i.e. technology that is always around us.
The company we are talking about is, of course, Google. What its manager Rick Osterloh left unsaid, was how Google is going to profit from this vision of ambient or rather ubiquitous computing. By putting more devices in people’s homes and pockets, Google is receiving even more data about their customers, which in return can be marketed to third parties. This is essentially what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism: the commodification of personal data.
Since her seminal essay in 2014, Shoshana Zuboff has been one of the most respected critics in regards to the business practices of ‘Big Tech’, as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are called. Earlier this year, she published The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. In her talk at the 2019 Falling Walls Conference, she is going to further explore what it means if the personal data of billions of people worldwide has been “hijacked” by a few powerful companies.
How companies gather the “data exhaust”
“Surveillance capitalism has claimed something from outside the market and brought it into the market to sell and buy. And what it claimed is private, human experience to be sold and purchased as behavioral data”, Zuboff says. The companies provide free services in exchange to monitor their users, often without their explicit consent. And indeed, while the majority of Facebook or Google users are aware that they somehow “pay with their personal data” in order to use these services, they do not know exactly how this trade-off works. “Surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.”
First, there is the sheer amount of data these companies are gathering, often unbeknownst to their customers. Zuboff refers to this component as “data exhaust”, which contains all the information we leave in tiny digital breadcrumbs on every platform, website or app. This includes everything from Facebook likes and Google searches to tweets, emails, texts, photos, songs, and videos, location and movement, purchases, every click, misspelled word, every page view, and more, Zuboff writes.
Second, there is the question what actually happens with this data. This is where the capitalism part comes into place. For Zuboff, it is not just about targeting people with ads anymore, although it is certainly part of it. But the long-term goal is to change people’s behavior: “This is the gateway to a new universe of monetization opportunities: restaurants who want to be your destination. Service vendors who want to fix your brake pads. Shops who will lure you like the fabled Sirens”.
For Zuboff, companies like Google and Facebook are creating “predictions of future human behavior that are then sold to markets of business customers.” The more data a company gathers, the better it understands how individuals think and act. And this knowledge can ultimately be used to make them buy certain things, vote in a certain way or even think in a certain way that ultimately benefits the company.
A new form of capitalism needs new forms of resistance
How did this new form of surveillance capitalism emerge? How did we get from the invention of the World Wide Web as a liberating tool for knowledge to this concentrated power in the hands of a few companies?
According to Shoshana Zuboff, one reason is the fact that the internet has been, for a long time, the world’s largest ungoverned space. When services such as Amazon, Google and Facebook launched, there was hardly a legal and regulatory framework to keep them in check (and as the data scandal around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica has shown, lawmakers and regulators are still unsure on how to deal with data collection practices on a global scale). In this lawless space, neoliberal companies developed their new form of capitalism. Or, as the artist James Bridle put it: Google may have started as a place to organize human knowledge. But it ended up controlling the access to it.
While this sounds bleak, not everything is lost. There is still time to wake up and fight for a different digital future. Fur Zuboff, it is important that this change is not in the hands of the companies themselves. Self-regulation by asking the companies for more privacy options, she argues, is as if one would ask a giraffe to shorten its neck: “These demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival.”
Relying solely on the users to free themselves from the claws of surveillance capitalism is also not an option. While it is important to raise awareness around the sharing of data and its usage, too many people around the world depend on platforms like Facebook, Google and Apple in their everyday life. “Signing out” just is not a choice for many of us anymore.
Instead, Zuboff calls for for a new paradigm. The problem with surveillance capitalism has to be confronted and named. Tighter laws and regulations have to be established on a global scale. “My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young”, Zuboff says.
written by: Eike Kühl