A recent article in the Guardian began with a paragraph that struck me as incredibly important, not just as an introduction to the subject-matter of the article (Surveillance Capitalism) but as an explanation for our tribalized and angry age.
We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrateour conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.
Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.
These paragraphs were a lead-in to a description of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, in which she describes “Surveillance Capitalism.” Zuboff is a Harvard Business School professor, and her basic insight is that the changes being made are less about the nature of digital technology and more about a “new mutant form of capitalism” that uses tech for its purposes.
It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.
“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
The essential point being made is that we live in an era of both state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart, in which digital technology is separating people into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched–the “raw material.” We can limit state surveillance through the law, but at this point, there is no law restraining the use of our data by Facebook, Google, et al.
This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power.
I have no way of evaluating either the accuracy or the imminence of this threat. And that brings me back to the article’s opening paragraph. We are living in a time of profound change, and anyone who says they know where that change is taking us is smoking something very strong.
We are “raw material” in so many ways…..