As a reminder, this is part of a series of write-ups based off a class I’m teaching at Tufts University called Data and Power: Deconstructing Surveillance. If you would like more of a description of what the class is, check out the post from Week 1. If you want to keep up with this series, you can subscribe to receive email updates or on Medium where the write-ups are posted!
In the class last week, we introduced ourselves to the ideas of Shoshana Zuboff from her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The short documentary we watched provided us with a brief, but thought-provoking overview of what is at stake given the systems I describe above. For this week, we read the first two chapters of Surveillance Capitalism, which further introduce us to the concepts inherent in the theory, and then recount the history of how the logic of surveillance capitalism took such a hold on the world.
This week is all about the social colliding with the technology. In a different world, governed by different social systems, the technologies that power surveillance capitalism may not have arisen, or if they did, may not be used in the ways they are in our world. Thus, understanding the logic of surveillance capitalism requires that we understand dominant social logics of our world that drive and shape it: capitalism, markets, neoliberalism, liberalism, democracy.
Our task is two-fold: to understand the contours of these logics, keeping in mind that they are complicated, but not too complicated to outline enough to gain a deeper understanding of surveillance systems; and to judge these logics by evaluating their legitimacy. The underlying conclusions that we can draw about the legitimacy of these logics will not just serve as tools for building arguments for or against surveillance capitalism, but can be used to argue for or against any technological system.
We can do this by both defining these logics and examining them in their historical context. Historicizing, as we will see, is an important skill to practice so we can hone our ability to critique. Technological systems and social logics change and reshape themselves over time. Different periods of history were governed by different logics, or different flavors of existing logics, and therefore show us alternatives to our present condition.
Surveillance & capitalism
This week’s exploration begins with the first chapter of Surveillance Capitalism, which I linked publicly for the learning community to read. The reading is an introduction to the idea of surveillance as a dominant market logic that is distinct from the logic of industrial capitalism. In contrast to an internet that was thought, originally, to liberate individuals’ capabilities while maintaining privacy as a norm, Zuboff argues that this rogue mutation of capitalism shattered dreams of democratizing knowledge. While outlining the contents of the book to come, she describes surveillance capitalism as unprecedented, a new logic governing society, and one where we have been turned into the raw materials of capitalism, subject to the behavioral manipulations of corporations who compete for more accurate behavioral predictions to sell and profit from.
To better understand the logic of surveillance capitalism, we take a brief detour to discuss capitalism itself, as we cannot understand the former without the latter.
Surplus and competition
Capitalism is a complicated concept, and one that has changed over time from its original conceptions. In everyday life, we may invoke the concept quite often, but if we ask really what it means, struggle to define it. This difficulty may lie in the fact that modern capitalist institutions and textbooks ascribe many social phenomena to capitalism. A definition from the International Monetary Fund includes in the concept: private property, people acting in their self-interest, competition in a market of supply and demand, freedom of choice, and limited government (acknowledging as well that different flavors of capitalism have more or less of these aspects). I believe that it is useful to understand this expansive definition, but potentially more useful to get at the core of what it means to govern organizations based on rights to capital.
For this, I lean on the work of Richard Wolff, economist at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He boils down capitalism to essentially workers using the means of production to produce, renting themselves to capitalists for a wage, and capitalists taking more money than is paid into workers’ wages — a surplus. I like this definition because organizations that operate without these features can also do things from the IMF definition, including competing in markets, or having private property. But without the surplus taken from workers product, capitalists do not exist, and capitalism does not exist.
Contrast this with the classical Marxist definition of socialism: the workers owning the means of production, not renting themselves for a wage, but cooperatively sharing the product and its profit. Without a capitalist to take more than workers, this unequal dynamic falls away.
Reflection: We spend time in class coming up with arguments for and against a profit surplus or a sharing of profit. As an exercise, this forces us to ask certain fundamental questions about the relationship between individuals in an economic order. No one answer is completely right, so the point of this is to push yourself to try to figure out what you believe in, and why.
Another aspect of capitalism that we can focus on is its inherent drive towards competition. This is not necessarily a part of our pared down definition from Wolff, but it is a common occurrence in other definitions.
Competition is argued to be a regulating force in a capitalist economy, forcing companies to act in certain ways for fear of losing patrons. Competitive pressures are said to push capitalists to want to grow their profits over time, which is perhaps one of the more insidious pieces of capitalist logic. Pushing for higher and higher profits may lead capitalist corporations to do things like keep worker wages low, cut corners on safety, or constantly search for new markets to trade in.
Reflection: Given the competitive pressures linked to capitalist logic, we can take another moment to see if we can argue for or against consequences of chasing higher and higher profits. For example, can you judge and then justify your judgment of the following consequences:
1. Capitalism without regulation leads to inequalities generated by the profit surplus, and society tends towards inequality
2. Market competition for higher profits incentivizes companies to do the following: keep worker pay low, cut corners on safety, push for more productivity
3. Unregulated capitalism tends to create markets out of anything, even things that may otherwise be deemed life necessities like food or housing
The goal of this reflection is to analyze these statements at a deep level. If I pick a different example, “capitalism leads to alienated workers who do not see themselves in the product, rather as a cog in the machine, making them depressed,” I can dive deeply into my agreement or disagreement with this. I can argue that people deserve to feel fulfilled by what they produce. Why? Fulfillment from production is psychologically healthy. So what? Psychological health is something that should be a goal of a society.
With a bit of understanding of capitalism, we can now turn to surveillance technologies and see how they interact with the aspects of capitalism that we identified.
As Zuboff describes surveillance capitalism, she takes aspects of industrial capitalism and maps them to their new surveillance context:
- Means of production: Prediction-generating algorithms
- Product: Predictions, traded in markets of behavioral futures
- Raw materials: Your behavioral data
Moreover, she explores the same consequences of competitive profit pursuit as we did above, applying them to these data-driven systems:
- Capitalism leads to inequality: Those who own prediction data hold a lot of information about you, but you have none of it
- Competitive pressures: Companies will compete to make better and better predictions, gathering ever more data, potentially modifying our behavior to make predictions more accurate
- Capitalism commodifies otherwise untouched resources: Your behavior is now monetized whereas previously it was left as your own property
The arguments that we made for or against different aspects of capitalism can apply to these same aspects of surveillance capitalism. How do you feel about corporations having much more data on you than you have? Are the competitive pressures driving more collection and behavioral manipulation legitimate or not?
Neoliberalism and surveillance
The second chapter from Zuboff is extremely rich. Her recounting of the history that she sees leading to the point where surveillance capitalism takes hold as a new mode of profit-making is well-reasoned and full of important events.
As Zuboff tells it, the rise of surveillance capitalism is the product of several historical processes combining at the right time. The first is a drive towards individualization, as she recounts the first and second modernities, where social movement pushed individuals to have the liberty to define their own selves and destinies. The second is the consequences of neoliberalism, an economic form adopted in the mid-1970s that created massive inequality, dismantled social programs, and left many feeling that they could not achieve what they desired for their lives for lack of resources or opportunity. Zuboff argues that tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google took advantage of these social realities to offer cheap products that allowed social expression, individual customization, for the trade-off of their privacy.
The first thing to note is the value of putting modern systems in their historical context. Knowing where we have come from, and how things have been different in the past, can give us crucial perspective to see our present with different eyes.
Our job now is to ask critical questions about the water we swim in, partially by understanding the logics that are at play in determining our culture and ideology. We look at two logics at play in the history Zuboff describes to give ourselves some perspective: liberalism and neoliberalism.
In the U.S., we are hard-pressed to understand much about liberalism because the word is more often used in the sense of being “liberal” than its classical definition. Liberalism was a political movement that gained popularity in the West during the late 18th century, related and key to movements for democratic governance. At its core is the argument that individuals should be free from illegitimate coercion, at that time by the monarchic state or religious power, and able to pursue their highest virtues. When it intersects with arguments for democratic government, it imagines that institutions can be set up to allow individuals to achieve their highest potential and control their lives, like public educational systems or the right to vote on policy.
A notable proponent of liberalism, relating to capitalism, is Adam Smith, whose 1776 treatise Wealth of Nations is often cited by mainstream economists as providing the foundation for capitalist ideology today. Smith is a perfect example of how history and context is important. In his work, he argued against government control of economics, and for competitive markets to instead govern prices. But in his day, the government was the monarchy, a dictatorial form of rule. Moreover, most economic actors were small operations compared to the corporations of today, much less multinational corporations. And importantly, Smith, as a moral philosopher, operated on the premise that humans at their core were sympathetic beings, and that economic action is made by those same sympathetic actors.
Taken in Smith’s time, his argument was for throwing off the yoke of dictatorial government, and moving towards more democratic economics where sympathetic individuals and groups had more control over their lives. Smith even takes pains in his work to critique capital owners and landlords, calling them “vile” and selfish because they also exerted a cruel form of control over the less powerful.
This is a much different picture than what we get today with neoliberal economics, an ideology that rose to prominence in the mid-1970s and has dominated mainstream thinking since. Neoliberalism takes the argument for markets as a governing logic to the extreme, arguing for the smallest government possible (only to protect property rights and ensure markets function well), and no government intervention into social issues like poverty, racial inequality, or others. This logic imagines only individuals, no society, as economic, self-interested rational actors within markets as the ideal form of governance. The ideal of neoliberal ideology is the entrepreneur: a self-made, lone actor who innovates in the market to progress society.
Reflection: Liberalism and neoliberalism may, given our analysis, seem somewhat in opposition. To figure out where we fall on our judgment of these logics, we can try to answer some difficult questions about these views:
Do you agree that people should be free of illegitimate forms of coercion, as in liberal thought? What makes power legitimate or illegitimate?
To what extent should a goal of society be to allow people to pursue their highest good? What resources or institutions would be necessary for this?
To what degree should we pursue individuality, and to what degree should we pursue collectivity? How do the two interact?
Surveillance capitalism “filling the void”
With all the relevant tools in hand, we can now return to analyzing surveillance capitalism as it stands today. Zuboff ends the chapter by outlining ways that she sees companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple “filling the void” left in the wake of neoliberalism and the second modernity. Where people wanted to be able to express their individuality but also have become constrained economically, technology companies offered customization, free products, choice, sociality.
The language surrounding surveillance products from these companies closely echoes these pressures Zuboff identifies. When companies give you advertisements or custom search results, they argue that they are trying to provide you with useful information custom-tailored to your preferences. Some of them say that using their platforms, you can become a content creator, promote your brand, become an entrepreneur. They say that they are giving people resources, access to information and social connection, for the negligible price of your privacy.
Reflection: Let’s evaluate these types of mentalities in the language of liberalism and neoliberalism, leaning on the judgments we made of each logic previously to in turn judge the logic of surveillance capitalism:
What types of things do allow individuals to reach their highest potential? To what degree do the surveillance products serving us customized content match those?
Given the social difficulties stemming from neoliberalism (economic inequality, lack of opportunity, degraded social justice), to what extent can surveillance capitalist companies fix these problems? What is the role of other institutions in addressing these problems?
Liberalism argues against illegitimate forms of coercion. Neoliberalism rose in opposition to the unaccountable socialist state. How accountable are surveillance capitalist companies?
For next week
Tufts Graduate School of Engineering is unionizing
Workers in my graduate school at Tufts have chosen to organize to join the existing workers union representing the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. They held a public rally and delivered letters to Deans Lee and Panetta conveying their intent and hoping that the administration will be supportive of their efforts to bargain for workplace improvements.
Readings and reflections
For the next week, we will read Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, pages 12–24 from the introduction, which I will make available here, but also encourage everyone to buy the full book. We will also listen to two episodes (parts 1 and 3 of the three-part series) of the podcast Philosophize This! describing the work of Michel Foucault on surveillance and power.
We will also reflect on the Zuboff chapters we read by relating the content to our own lives. The reflection prompt is as follows:
Last week, we reflected on advertisements that you were served based on different platforms’ understanding of what you may like. A week has passed and maybe you have thought differently about your interactions with data: what you click, what you search, which pages you navigate to, etc.
This past week, how did you interact with data? What questions came up as you were performing those interactions? Are there any decisions you consciously made as you were using any digital platforms?
Also, we read about Zuboff’s history of how digital platforms and social media filled a desire for individualism in the “second modernity.” Do you resonate with that individualization? Perhaps you can reflect on how you like personalization versus some thing in your life that are not personalized, but may still be desirable.