Surveillance Capitalism


Surveillance Capitalism

Wiesław Bartkowski

03 July 2020

We are dealing with the parasitic economic logic of modern corporations, in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification.

The term proposed by prof. Shoshana Zuboff. Below are eight quotes from the definition of the term Surveillance Capitalism with my comments.

The definition comes from the book "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power".

Earlier in the literature you could find the term digital capitalism, but such a term did not quite clearly denote the nature of the phenomenon.

In my opinion, the word surveillance best reflects the nature of this phenomenon, which is the digitization of our experience of reality and the extraction of this digitized information by corporations for which it is the basis for the existence of a new type of services and products.

  1. „A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales;”

An important distinction: human way of experiencing, not human experience. Surveillance capitalism is interested in how we experience the world, and the content of this process, i.e. our experience, is less important. The more the nature of this process is very difficult to make public opinion aware and, as a result, to regulate this practice. Until now, we are dealing mainly with unregulated conquest by digital corporations. The key is to determine whether the way we experience reality is part of our right to privacy as well as the content of this experience. To determine, is it allowed to extract, process and sell our experience?

  1. „A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification;”

The basis for the operation of the surveillance capitalism system is the creation of products and services designed intentionally to support behavioral modification, or which cannot function properly without the assumption that such modification will occur.

  1. „A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history;”

Today we have come to the financial inequalities of the glory days of kings. However, this is not just about capital imbalances. Knowledge imbalance is much more important. The former kings, despite their wealth, did not have detailed knowledge about each of their subjects. Today, the system that observes us knows more about us than we know about ourselves.

  1. „The foundational framework of a surveillance economy;”

Surveillance capitalism has led to the transformation of the entire economy, which is subordinated to its logic and transforms into an economy based on surveillance.

  1. „As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth;”

We live in a socio-technical system in a network of interconnected human beings and inhuman components. Communication between people is mediated by digital technology. However, this is not passive mediation, where technology is only a means of communication. Technology actively shapes this message through data filtering algorithms, comparing data with each other, and in the new paradigm of machine learning also generate new data sets based on what machine models have learned from data generated by our network behavior. As a result, such a system actively shapes our perception of reality. Moreover, the elements of this system are shaped by corporate decisions that are not subject to social control. We can already see the side effects of such a system. Disintegration of social fabric. Disappearance of the society we have known so far. Human nature is degraded.

This practice is very difficult to stop because the degradation of the natural environment, and today the degradation of human nature, are treated by corporations as an external cost not included in the economic calculation. This is the way to hide the full costs of capitalist exploitation.

  1. „The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy;”

An important element of the new force is instrumentation, i.e. a technological structure that allows dominance over society through the extraction of experience that allows behavioral modifications. Digital technology embraces us with an increasingly tight embrace. There is no place where we could hide from her, and even when we try, it turns out that the complexity of the world is so large due to technology supporting its operation that without technology we are not able to function at this level of complexity.

Democracy is under threat because freedom of choice is under threat. Consent to economics, in which sophisticated methods of manipulating the behavior of entire populations, not just customers, are allowed to increase the chance of business success. It is giving away freedom in exchange for short-term profit, without looking at global and long-term consequences for democratic capitalism.

  1. „A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty;”

Total certainty is a guarantee of business success. The instrumentation created in combination with the methods of behavioral modification is aimed at maximizing certainty. As a result, the most creative and original lifestyles and activities are eliminated, because the effects of these activities are the most difficult to predict. They increase the uncertainty of the system, i.e. reduce the chance of business success.

  1. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.

We are dealing with imposing the will bypassing the democratic process. By compulsion to use certain products and services in a way that we have no influence. Agreeing to the terms of the contract, because we have no other choice, we can't not use the product, because it has become massive.

The state is too weak to oppose corporate practices.