Fighting The Inevitable: Surveillance Capitalism & The Decline of Civilisation

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I read a lot of books. But there’s one that I’ve had on pre-order for a long time that I can’t wait to delve into when it finally gets released at the end of the month.

So far, the indications are excellent that Shosana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ has all the markings of a classic text and required reading for anyone who’s online in any capacity in this modern age. Zuboff is the academic who first coined the term ‘surveillance capitalism’  a number of years ago and this book, her first in many years, is already being talked about as having an impact on contemporary socio-economics that is comparable to that of Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ all those years before.

Once I’ve managed to finally get my hands on the book, I’ll dig into it in far greater depth and share a few more detailed thoughts. But in the meantime, as a taster during her pre-release book publicity tour, I urge everyone to read her interview from The Guardian yesterday (‘The Goal Is to Automate Us’).

The backdrop of course is a story that is becoming more well-known – particularly within the last 12 months. Billions of us are using ‘free’ digital services without any clear understanding of how our data on that platform is actually being used elsewhere. And what’s more, for purposes that often run counter to our explicit consent. With the result that with every passing day, vast powers are accumulating unfettered to such an extent that we are now facing a hugely dangerous period for the way in which humans interact with each other in modern society.

“The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable.”

As she points out, we even use the unfortunate term ‘digital natives’ today. Ignoring the lessons of history, the well-known story is playing out all over again. The lives of the ignorant natives are being slaughtered by those wielding power that today exceeds in reach anything that mankind has seen before.

“Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.”

As technology has increasingly provided us with new capabilities, we’ve ignored a far more perfidious problem. It’s a challenge that naturally follows from the fact that every digital activity leaves information in its wake. And that information is likely to be far more valuable – in aggregate – for the surveillance capitalist than the benefit that accrues to one user who’s happy at getting to use that ‘free’ service’ in the first place.

As this vast sea of personal data continues to grow inexorably with every passing day, we need to start asking some difficult questions about the knowledge that’s being created as a result. Who owns that knowledge today? The individual or, as it is today, the company? Who makes the decision about who should be allowed to use that knowledge moving forwards? And how does everyone else catch up if it’s all being sucked up by companies that are getting bigger and bigger?

Only a few know the origin story I suspect. Because it’s easy to forget that Google wasn’t originally that interested in advertising as a business model. Until it realised that it could trawl this information for knowledge about what specific users were likely to do and suddenly start predicting just how successful adverts would be in front of certain users (as measured by click-through rates). The dawn of a new world that prayed to this new god, targeted advertising, had arrived. After all, who was really being harmed if companies simply used information that users never intended to share, quietly, secretly – if the result was that that user ended up with better, more successful advertising (defined as being ‘more profitable for Google’)…

Zuboff raises a crucial point here. Today, of those individuals who can see the scale of the issue that we’re collectively facing, most live under a shared illusion that the benefits of modern technology are entirely inseparable from surveillance capitalism. In other words, whilst people may understand on some basic level that they are the product, there’s an insidious belief that this is the essential price of entry in the modern world. But that’s simply not the case:-

“The tech leaders desperately want us to believe that technology is the inevitable force here, and their hands are tied. But there is a rich history of digital applications before surveillance capitalism that really were empowering and consistent with democratic values. Technology is the puppet, but surveillance capitalism is the puppet master.”

This is a real live issue that we live with every day at MaidSafe as we’re building the SAFE Network. Doing nothing and simply letting the current digital inequality continue is not an option. Choosing to simply collectively sit on our hands today and do nothing would be disastrous. We will continue see our democracies shot through and pulled down as the information asymmetries grow ever wider between citizens and massive multinational technology behemoths who are today wielding more power – without ever having been elected – than many nation states. Yet it’s hard to believe (even if you are in the minority who argue that democracy isn’t the optimal state for civilisation) that people are simply content to sit back and have their lives increasingly governed by the decisions of  leaders of large technology companies.

At the same time, the surveillance and tracking has become so insidious that it is increasingly encroaching and permanently damaging the personal and private lives that every human should be entitled to as a fundamental human right. If the real rules and laws of the world are increasingly being set by companies for whom surveillance consolidates their power base, why are we passively accepting that the commercial interests of these organisations double up as the  best possible alternative we have to organise an inclusive human society around the globe?

“On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. Paradoxically, this coup is celebrated as “personalisation”, although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.”

There’s no doubt that this is a story is approaching the end game – but it’s not a result that any but a tiny minority of the world can be in favour of. Yet it’s a world that will only be visible, for most, in the rear view mirror, after the options have been closed down. We need to work together to act in our collective best interests. We either all make a decision to make these changes now before the cost of making such changes becomes a price that exceeds any of our abilities to meet it. Today’s the day – or digital inequality will continue to accelerate at a pace that won’t be recoverable within either our lifetimes or that of our children’s.

If nothing else, the first step might be reading Zuboff’s book when it comes out in a week or so. Then let’s have this conversation again. And again. Until everyone knows just how high the stakes are.

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