Navigating Through the Shadows of the Information Industry:
The interconnectivity aspect of the contemporary age can be a blessing for those who are unaware of the measures tech companies have exercised toward information-extraction for profit. As we venture into the era of Artificial Intelligence, new developments in the field raise privacy concerns for its users.
In her nonfiction novel, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Harvard Business School professor Dr. Shoshana Zuboff brings to light the sheer lengths tech corporations will stretch to collect information from their users, and capitalize on such information. The themes of the novel, though published in 2019 by Public Affairs Books, grow evermore relevant in 2021 as the dark side of technology and capitalism bleed into Orwellian territory.
Before the current era of Artificial Intelligence, the association of the term “raw materials” has been drawn to the unprocessed, unrefined, unpolished products, sources of energy, or general, very physical components in which contemporary culture is built. However, since meaning is relative to context, the definition of “raw materials” has evolved in tandem with technological advancement. “Raw materials” is no longer an unrefined physicality, but unrefined human experience toward expanding digital commerce.
Dr. Zuboff defines “Surveillance Capitalism” as “a new economic order that claims human experience has free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” The expansive nature of scientific and technological advancement constantly provides new opportunities for tech companies to profit off the human experience.
Upon introducing the concept of Surveillance Capitalism, Dr. Zuboff depicts an outwardly innocent example: Google Nest. To those unfamiliar with Google Nest, Nest provides a “Smart Home” experience. The devices one purchases for the Nest system are interconnected in nature. At initial glance, this appears to ease the quality of one’s life. Your partner has been out-of-town for a while, and decides to pleasantly surprise you by returning home earlier than expected? The Nest system, through its video doorbell, recognizes your partner standing at the door before they can give you a call that they’re here.
If the Nest has recognized your partner, the implication here is that Nest has learned your partner. The notification of your partner’s presence may spoil the surprise, but it certainly alleviates your anxiety when you’re not expecting anyone to be at your door that given evening. Is this winter especially frigid? The Nest thermostat, after learning that you enjoy a continuous sixty-six degrees when it’s below-zero outside, senses your presence in the room, and automatically increases the temperature for your comfort. Of course, the concept of a Smart Home sounds like Ray Bradbury’s 1950 science-fiction short story, The Veldt; however, it’s 2021, and the plot of the Bradbury story is a reality in the 21st century.
In the field of Artificial Intelligence, there are two primary algorithms involved in Machine Learning: “Supervised Learning” and “Unsupervised Learning”. With Supervised Learning, the programmer instructs the system on how to perform a given task. With Unsupervised Learning, however, the system is capable of learning how to perform the task on its own. If you wish to delve into Machine Learning further, I highly recommend checking out Stanford University’s Machine Learning course. It is distributed by Coursera, and is taught by Professor Andrew Ng. Of course, this bit of information is not present in the novel, but facilitated my personal research, and is still significant toward understanding how systems are customizable, and capable of tailoring to the user.
Now, Google Nest is a Learning system, and is able to learn how its users interact with it, tailoring itself to the individual user, and providing a customized experience of the product. However, the catch with systems like the Nest is that due to its ability to learn its users, the consumer of the product is unaware of exactly how much data the servers collect about them — and the amount is quite a lot. What Dr. Zuboff highlights in her novel is what the corporation — not the product — does with the data it collects through the product.
By collecting the personal information of its users, which, by and large, is innocent data (schedules, emotional responses, and even our personalities), the corporation is able to predict human behavior. The consumer/user is surveilled, observed, spied upon, and future behavior is predicted by the current collected data. Of course, this might appear to be quite obvious in nature because it may remove small discomforts in your life, such as sustaining a standard room temperature, but it raises privacy concerns as well as matters regarding individual Free Will. If human behavior can be predicted based on individual, sovereign traits, then our individual lives can be tailored toward how much Surveillance Capitalists can profit from our experiences, both presently and in the future. Dr. Zuboff expertly expounds and deconstructs the terminology and its macrocosmic applications toward layman-understanding of the tech industry and its politics.
While surveillance is not a novel concept, Dr. Zuboff spotlights how data- collection through surveillance produces profit for corporations. This data, according to Dr. Zuboff, is the Human Experience — which is not physical at all. Surveillance Capitalists are able to infiltrate the life, violate the privacy, of the user, and exploit the garnered data for profit.
The garnered data, as Dr. Zuboff explains, is traded in “Behavioral Futures Markets”, in which “many companies are eager to place bets on our future behavior”. What is dangerous about Surveillance Capitalism is that the exchange between the consumer and the product is not mutual. It is transactional, but “transactional” does not always result in equal benefit between both or all parties. Instead, the transaction benefits the Surveillance Capitalist more than the consumer. Our Experiences are now deemed as the Raw Material of the 21st-century, a principle that, outside of the realm of technological development, would otherwise be foreign and unseemly.
If Surveillance Capitalists carry the capability of predicting individual human behavior for corporate profit, then they, in turn, carry the capability to compartmentalize entire groups of individuals who share commonalities, and Influence and Behaviorally-Modify the collective experience as a whole. This issue does not exist simply within the scope of Dr. Zuboff’s novel; Netflix’s documentary “The Social Dilemma” (2020) discusses this issue at length as well, specializing in social media. The implications are monumental, and historically unrivaled. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal is a prime example of how Surveillance Capitalism has influenced domestic politics.
The novel travels from defining Surveillance Capitalism, to its sociopolitical origins and development, to legalities, to pointing out how human behavior is commodified, to the power dynamics involved in its evolution. The book additionally covers the lengths tech giants like Google and Facebook will journey to elude legalities and privacy regulations for corporate financial benefit. The territory of Surveillance Capitalism, within the scope of the novel, is represented by dark diction and phrases which allude to Wild West “lawlessness”.
Dr. Zuboff dissects how Surveillance Capitalism preys upon the innocence, the purity of the human experience, and profits from it. She additionally dissects how Surveillance Capitalists garner profit from major traumas, both individual and collective. Spanning a hefty 525 pages in the hardcover copy, are five sections and eighteen chapters elaborating upon and investigating the issue.
Her explorations are revealing. Her research — meticulous. With great mastery, she unravels the matrix of data-collection and distribution in the age of technological advancement. Her analyses of all associations, implications, and presentations of the subject matter are fearless. For the first time, we are able to journey into the intricacies and mechanisms of an industry that conducts a great majority of its work in the shadows, shrouded in secrecy. Even those with limited knowledge of Information Capitalism are able to examine the complexities of Surveillance Capitalism with an effortlessness that can be attributed to Dr. Zuboff’s eloquent exposure.
If you are interested in learning more about Surveillance Capitalism, its historical evolution, its relationship to behavioral modification, its role in contemporary culture and politics, and controversies entailing Critical Theory and Epistemology in the digital age, I recommend picking up a copy of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. It is a majestic, powerful addition to any bookshelf.