Surveillance Capitalism
Thu, 28 Feb 2019 || By Faadillah Fayyadh Aidad

*The commentary is a review of an article entitled Google as a Fortune Teller: The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism.” By S. Zuboff


 

Unlike state actors, the objective of surveillance by private entities is to change people’s behavior. Surveillance through the internet is not a new thing; some people already realize it, some may even welcome it. Most of us click on the "I accept" button when apps ask for permission to use our personal information on reflex, even when we know the consequences. Our biggest concern tends to focus on the misuse of said information, such as online scams and identity theft, but not when our data is used accordingly. Companies tell us that they harvest our data to “improve their services”, but we never understand what that term means. "Improving services" is changing behavior. To understand this, we need to breakdown how surveillance capitalism accumulates wealth, and how Google, the largest company of surveillance capitalism in the world, shapes our behavior.

From its inception, Google was already collecting user data. At the start, these data on user behavior as a result of the search query in their website was treated as a waste, but the dot.com bubble burst pushes Google to increase their revenue in order to satisfy their investors.[1] Google realizes that recycling the data that users left behind from their searches increases the accuracy of their ads. These so-called “behavioral surplus” allow Google to magically use their capital (the users) to process raw materials (the users) into profit (the users too). [2]

Utilizing the discovery of behavioral surplus, Google maps out an efficient way to grow infinitely:[3]

  1. Increase the number of users through services and channels to harvest data.
  2. Use Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to process behavioral data.
  3. Convert behavioral data to predict future behavior.
  4. Sell the behavior prediction to future behavior markets, such as ads.
  5. Use the data to form behavior markets to get more data, ad infinitum.

Keep in mind; advertisers are not the only service that is attracted to the market potential of behavior prediction. There is no telling what interest actors who trade in future behavior may have on our behavioral data, which is the main reason why giving our data to Google is a risky endeavor.

Surveillance capitalism is arguably the most significant discovery in capitalism. Traditional capitalism requires producers to use their capital to process raw material into profit, which they use to expand the capital that is lost during the process. Surveillance capitalism cuts the manufacturing process to allow capital to breed more capital without manufacture. The absence of manufacturing abolishes surveillance capitalists from societal responsibility, essentially turning their business into a super-parasite, leeching of profit from its users while giving nothing in return.[4] The apparent wealth inequality from this mode of business is just icing on the cake of surveillance capitalism, with its capability to shape our reality.

The ability to predict the future discards a fundamental aspect of the human experience: the notion of uncertainty. Uncertainty generates the need for humans to socialize. It generates social trust, social organization, family values, legitimate authority, rights and obligations, and most importantly, the notion of free will.[5] Free will, or libertarian free will in the philosophical sense, means that our decisions are made by us as an individual, instead of some outside actors. It runs opposite to determinism, which believe that our decisions are the result of some outcome in the past, or outside factor beyond our control.[6] Decisions are only meaningful if the individual has options, meaning they do not know what the right decision is, and no actor can influence the process of how we reach the outcome we decided. Surveillance capitalism bypasses the sanctity of an individual's decision-making process because they: a) they know what the right decision for the individual, and b) they can influence the decision-making process of such individual. The presence of an actor capable of influencing global decision making is a direct threat towards the collective human experience, even more so if they can do it without being noticed. For any capitalistic enterprise, growth is measured by the amount of material capital they can gather or the number of profit they can earn. Surveillance capitalism measures their growth by how much influence they can have on our decision making and the amount of information they can gather. As long as perpetual growth remains as a cornerstone of the global capitalistic regime, there is no incentive for surveillance capitalism to stop finding new ways to harvest information from humanity, up until they shred the last piece of individuality from the last person on earth.

Ironically, Google is one of the largest supporters of freedom of information. Google, along with their associated services, transforms the entire digital landscape by providing the infrastructure for people to access, share, or create information free of charge. In this digital age, Google is an essential part of our life. However, these services requires our willingness to give up some of our personal information. Their knowledge about everything that might be our concerns can give them the ability to control us in the virtual world. A world under the control of surveillance capitalism will be devoid of responsibility, one where our decisions are not made by us, where our decisions do not matter, where our decisions are already predetermined.

Editor: Anisa Pratita Mantovani

Read another article written by Faadillah Fayyadh Aidad

 

References

[1] Zuboff, S. (2016, March 05). Google as a Fortune Teller: The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism. [online]. Available at: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/the-digital-debate/shoshana-zuboff-secrets-of-surveillance-capitalism-14103616.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_0 [Accessed on 24 February 2019]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] FRANKLIN, R. L. (1968). FREEWILL AND DETERMINISM: A study of rival conceptions of man. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.