You thought digital data mining was getting bad? Check this link out about how companies like Google and Facebook are collecting everything about your biological and psychological "fingerprints". I would be very careful about my VR use... Personally, I don't.
The goal: to change people’s actual behavior at scale
This is just one peephole, in one corner, of one industry, and the peepholes are multiplying like cockroaches. Among the many interviews I’ve conducted over the past three years, the Chief Data Scientist of a much-admired Silicon Valley company that develops applications to improve students’ learning told me, “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us”.
Capitalism has been hijacked by surveillance
I’ve come to a different conclusion: The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative surveillance project that subverts the “normal” evolutionary mechanisms associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.
Surveillance capitalism is a novel economic mutation bred from the clandestine coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three decades, especially in the Anglo economies. It is an unprecedented market form that roots and flourishes in lawless space. It was first discovered and consolidated at Google, then adopted by Facebook, and quickly diffused across the Internet. Cyberspace was its birthplace because, as Google/Alphabet Chairperson Eric Schmidt and his coauthor, Jared Cohen, celebrate on the very first page of their book about the digital age, “the online world is not truly bound by terrestrial laws…it’s the world’s largest ungoverned space.”
Fortune telling and selling
New economic logics and their commercial models are discovered by people in a time and place and then perfected through trial and error. Ford discovered and systematized mass production. General Motors institutionalized mass production as a new phase of capitalist development with the discovery and perfection of large-scale administration and professional management. In our time, Google is to surveillance capitalism what Ford and General Motors were to mass-production and managerial capitalism a century ago: discoverer, inventor, pioneer, role model, lead practitioner, and diffusion hub.
Specifically, Google is the mothership and ideal type of a new economic logic based on fortune telling and selling, an ancient and eternally lucrative craft that has exploited the human confrontation with uncertainty from the beginning of the human story. Paradoxically, the certainty of uncertainty is both an enduring source of anxiety and one of our most fruitful facts. It produced the universal need for social trust and cohesion, systems of social organization, familial bonding, and legitimate authority, the contract as formal recognition of reciprocal rights and obligations, and the theory and practice of what we call “free will.” When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of perpetual compliance with someone else’s plan.
Shift in the use of behavioral data
The year 2001 brought the dot.com bust and mounting investor pressures at Google. Back then advertisers selected the search term pages for their displays. Google decided to try and boost ad revenue by applying its already substantial analytical capabilities to the challenge of increasing an ad’s relevance to users –– and thus its value to advertisers. Operationally this meant that Google would finally repurpose its growing cache of behavioral data. Now the data would also be used to match ads with keywords, exploiting subtleties that only its access to behavioral data, combined with its analytical capabilities, could reveal.
It’s now clear that this shift in the use of behavioral data was an historic turning point. Behavioral data that were once discarded or ignored were rediscovered as what I call behavioral surplus. Google’s dramatic success in “matching” ads to pages revealed the transformational value of this behavioral surplus as a means of generating revenue and ultimately turning investment into capital. Behavioral surplus was the game-changing zero-cost asset that could be diverted from service improvement toward a genuine market exchange. Key to this formula, however, is the fact that this new market exchange was not an exchange with users but rather with other companies who understood how to make money from bets on users’ future behavior. In this new context, users were no longer an end-in-themselves. Instead they became a means to profits in a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products. Users are the source of free raw material that feeds a new kind of manufacturing process.
While these facts are known, their significance has not been fully appreciated or adequately theorized. What just happened was the discovery of a surprisingly profitable commercial equation –– a series of lawful relationships that were gradually institutionalized in the sui generis economic logic of surveillance capitalism. It’s like a newly sighted planet with its own physics of time and space, its sixty-seven hour days, emerald sky, inverted mountain ranges, and dry water.
A parasitic form of profit
The equation: First, the push for more users and more channels, services, devices, places, and spaces is imperative for access to an ever-expanding range of behavioral surplus. Users are the human nature-al resource that provides this free raw material. Second, the application of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data science for continuous algorithmic improvement constitutes an immensely expensive, sophisticated, and exclusive twenty-first century “means of production.” Third, the new manufacturing process converts behavioral surplus into prediction products designed to predict behavior now and soon. Fourth, these prediction products are sold into a new kind of meta-market that trades exclusively in future behavior. The better (more predictive) the product, the lower the risks for buyers, and the greater the volume of sales. Surveillance capitalism’s profits derive primarily, if not entirely, from such markets for future behavior.
While advertisers have been the dominant buyers in the early history of this new kind of marketplace, there is no substantive reason why such markets should be limited to this group. The already visible trend is that any actor with an interest in monetizing probabilistic information about our behavior and/or influencing future behavior can pay to play in a marketplace where the behavioral fortunes of individuals, groups, bodies, and things are told and sold. This is how in our own lifetimes we observe capitalism shifting under our gaze: once profits from products and services, then profits from speculation, and now profits from surveillance. This latest mutation may help explain why the explosion of the digital has failed, so far, to decisively impact economic growth, as so many of its capabilities are diverted into a fundamentally parasitic form of profit.
Breakthrough into “the system”
The process by which behavioral surplus led to the discovery of surveillance capitalism exemplifies this pattern. It is the foundational act of dispossession for a new logic of capitalism built on profits from surveillance that paved the way for Google to become a capitalist enterprise. Indeed, in 2002, Google’s first profitable year, founder Sergey Brin relished his breakthrough into “the system”, as he told Levy,
Honestly, when we were still in the dot-com boom days, I felt like a schmuck. I had an Internet start- up — so did everybody else. It was unprofitable, like everybody else’s, and how hard is that? But when we became profitable, I felt like we had built a real business.”
Brin was a capitalist all right, but it was a mutation of capitalism unlike anything the world had seen.
Once we understand this equation, it becomes clear that demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the Internet is like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck or a cow to give up chewing. Such demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival. How can we expect companies whose economic existence depends upon behavioral surplus to cease capturing behavioral data voluntarily? It’s like asking for suicide.
More behavioral surplus for Google
The imperatives of surveillance capitalism mean that there must always be more behavioral surplus for Google and others to turn into surveillance assets, master as prediction, sell into exclusive markets for future behavior, and transform into capital. At Google and its new holding company called Alphabet, for example, every operation and investment aims to increasing the harvest of behavioral surplus from people, bodies, things, processes, and places in both the virtual and the real world. This is how a sixty-seven hour day dawns and darkens in an emerald sky. Nothing short of a social revolt that revokes collective agreement to the practices associated with the dispossession of behavior will alter surveillance capitalism’s claim to manifest data destiny.
What is the new vaccine? We need to reimagine how to intervene in the specific mechanisms that produce surveillance profits and in so doing reassert the primacy of the liberal order in the twenty-first century capitalist project. In undertaking this challenge we must be mindful that contesting Google, or any other surveillance capitalist, on the grounds of monopoly is a 20th century solution to a 20th century problem that, while still vitally important, does not necessarily disrupt surveillance capitalism’s commercial equation. We need new interventions that interrupt, outlaw, or regulate 1) the initial capture of behavioral surplus, 2) the use of behavioral surplus as free raw material, 3) excessive and exclusive concentrations of the new means of production, 4) the manufacture of prediction products, 5) the sale of prediction products, 6) the use of prediction products for third-order operations of modification, influence, and control, and 5) the monetization of the results of these operations. This is necessary for society, for people, for the future, and it is also necessary to restore the healthy evolution of capitalism itself.
A coup from above
In the conventional narrative of the privacy threat, institutional secrecy has grown, and individual privacy rights have been eroded. But that framing is misleading, because privacy and secrecy are not opposites but rather moments in a sequence. Secrecy is an effect; privacy is the cause. Exercising one’s right to privacy produces choice, and one can choose to keep something secret or to share it. Privacy rights thus confer decision rights, but these decision rights are merely the lid on the Pandora’s Box of the liberal order. Inside the box, political and economic sovereignty meet and mingle with even deeper and subtler causes: the idea of the individual, the emergence of the self, the felt experience of free will.
Surveillance capitalism does not erode these decision rights –– along with their causes and their effects –– but rather it redistributes them. Instead of many people having some rights, these rights have been concentrated within the surveillance regime, opening up an entirely new dimension of social inequality. The full implications of this development have preoccupied me for many years now, and with each day my sense of danger intensifies. The space of this essay does not allow me to follow these facts to their conclusions, but I offer this thought in summary.
Surveillance capitalism reaches beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm. It accumulates not only surveillance assets and capital, but also rights. This unilateral redistribution of rights sustains a privately administered compliance regime of rewards and punishments that is largely free from detection or sanction. It operates without meaningful mechanisms of consent either in the traditional form of “exit, voice, or loyalty” associated with markets or in the form of democratic oversight expressed in law and regulation.
Profoundly anti-democratic power
In result, surveillance capitalism conjures a profoundly anti-democratic power that qualifies as a coup from above: not a coup d’état, but rather a coup des gens, an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty. It challenges principles and practices of self-determination ––in psychic life and social relations, politics and governance –– for which humanity has suffered long and sacrificed much. For this reason alone, such principles should not be forfeit to the unilateral pursuit of a disfigured capitalism. Worse still would be their forfeit to our own ignorance, learned helplessness, inattention, inconvenience, habituation, or drift. This, I believe, is the ground on which our contests for the future will be fought.
Hannah Arendt once observed that indignation is the natural human response to that which degrades human dignity. Referring to her work on the origins of totalitarianism she wrote, “If I describe these conditions without permitting my indignation to interfere, then I have lifted this particular phenomenon out of its context in human society and have thereby robbed it of part of its nature, deprived it of one of its important inherent qualities.”
So it is for me and perhaps for you: The bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.
Some years back, I was in a very small and fairly remote DMV outpost, getting my drivers license renewed. I think this was 12 years ago, a couple of renewals back. This was in more than one way, a very memorable experience. Because, of all the unheard of situations to find myself in at a DMV office, there was no one in line ahead of me. I was the only customer! And yet, I was told there would be a wait. The single DMV agent was on a headset phone and busy with something behind the counter, talking to someone unseen. After some time, he was ready to deal with his lone customer and we began the process with me handing him my expiring license. He took it and did his thing and asked me to stand at the marks on the floor for my new ID photo. He was still on the headset and talking with someone. I asked, "what are you doing, calibrating your facial recognition software?" His head snapped up to me, mouth agape, with a puzzled expression "why yes." I guess he was surprised that there was anyone out there paying that much attention to things.