As of right now, we are living through the most profound transformation in our information environment. And one problem with living through a revolution is that it’s almost impossible to take the long view of what is happening. If Shoshana Zuboff is right, we are in the middle of a new revolution nestled within the digital leap forward of the Information Age. The data gathering activities of online communications giants, starting with Google, are transforming capitalism as radically as Henry Ford did with mass production. Her book Surveillance Capitalism presents a set of problems some of which threaten our human potential on this Earth. The good news, she writes, is that if we start talking about these threats now we might avoid another unforeseen catastrophe.
Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School, has coined the phrases “surveillance capitalism” and “surveillance economy”. In her new book, she defines surveillance capitalism as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. In normal English, this means that your personal, private, and behavioral data can be used as a resource for companies to make money from. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets — business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later. It was Google that first learned how to capture surplus behavioral data, more than what they needed for services, and used it to compute prediction products that they could sell to their business customers, in this case, advertisers. We rushed to the internet expecting empowerment, the democratization of knowledge, and help with real problems, but surveillance capitalism really was just too lucrative to resist. This economic logic has now spread beyond the tech companies to new surveillance–based ecosystems in virtually every economic sector, from insurance to automobiles to health, education, finance, to every product described as “smart” and every service described as “personalized.” By now it’s very difficult to participate effectively in society without interfacing with these same channels that are supply chains for surveillance capitalism’s data flows.
She gives three ways, or ‘arenas’ to change this dynamic. First, we need a sea change in public opinion. This begins with the power of naming. It means awakening to a sense of indignation and outrage. We say, “No.” We say, “This is not OK.”
Second, we need to muster the resources of our democratic institutions in the form of law and regulation. These include, but also move beyond, privacy and antitrust laws. We also need to develop new laws and regulatory institutions that specifically address the mechanisms and imperatives of surveillance capitalism.
A third arena relates to the opportunity for competitive solutions. Every survey of internet users has shown that once people become aware of surveillance capitalists’ backstage practices, they reject them. That points to a disconnect between supply and demand: a market failure. So once again we see a historic opportunity for an alliance of companies to find an alternative ecosystem — one that returns us to the earlier promise of the digital age as an era of empowerment and the democratization of knowledge.
Surveillance capitalism has the potential to fundamentally change who we are. Left to their own devices, the data harvesters will continue to take in vast amounts of our personal information, with or without our consent. They are forced to follow the profit motive to its ultimate destination. The time to start setting limits and finding solutions is now.