Surveillance Capitalism, Abstractive Forces

Reading Nicholas Carr’s blog, I was made aware of an interesting piece of commentary available on a German journalism site: The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism. It covers a topic on many minds today: the growing ability of faceless organizations to monitor and access data about the lives of private citizens, in both digital and physical realms.

I have been interested in good criticism of the Web for years now. As someone with a contrarian disposition, one thing that makes me uncomfortable is an echo chamber. Silicon Valley is a pre-eminent example of just such a phenomenon. There’s an abundance of breathless descriptions of the shining future that technology and the Web, in particular, will bring us, and I find that suspicious. Not every day is the sky blue; sometimes it rains. So I always enjoy a nuanced critique of the bright, boundless future we are all promised by the technorati.

I suggest reading the article itself, but in I’ve cut out important quotes and and interspersed them with my own commentary in order to highlight a narrative that isn’t fully appreciated by many. Then I attempted to give some historical context for the underlying force in Part 2.

Part 1

“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.

An analogy is the rapid spread of mass production and administration throughout the industrialized world in the early twentieth century, but with one major caveat. Mass production was interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.”

This is the key insight of Zuboff’s analysis, in my opinion. Corporations and other abstractive forces (like government) are becoming increasingly disentangled with the humans they profess to serve. This is a trend one can identify in the previous centuries, but it has accelerated tremendously in the past century.

“The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale.”

People are scared about this trend intuitively, and you can see this any time someone complains about corporations, government, the elite — an out of touch power subjugating humans — it’s all a cry against the same process. A process that they can sense, but don’t have a vocabulary for — because we are transitioning to a higher, not yet experienced rung on this ladder of progress. Historians and academics in the future will devise terms for this.

“This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making. I am thinking of matters that include, but are not limited to, the sanctity of the individual and the ideals of social equality; the development of identity, autonomy, and moral reasoning; the integrity of contract, the freedom that accrues to the making and fulfilling of promises; norms and rules of collective agreement; the functions of market democracy; the political integrity of societies; and the future of democratic sovereignty.”

Chilling. I would argue that many of those things are a result of the same underlying force that now threatens to disband them.

An example of how you can see surveillance capitalism manifested in real life:

“The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. The sports apparel company Under Armour is reinventing its products as wearable technologies.”

Very few people are in the business of selling just products today. Instead, they sell brands and now services in an effort to capture customer loyalty or ‘engagement’. This loyalty sustains the corporation and is what separates it from it previous eras of commerce. In a product-driven environment, the needs of the consumer are ultimate: products don’t sell if they’re poor at meeting the needs of consumers. That cause-and-effect relationship is being degraded by a focus on customer loyalty.

Part 2
Of course, none of this is actually special to modern history. As my friend pointed out to me, “those watchers have been around for a long time developing sophisticated skills… There’s a reason Pharaoh was god. He was able to oversee.”

Indeed, this process is described lucidly in Part 1 of Seeing Like A State. The powers that be have sought to standardize and simplify many natural phenomena in order to manipulate and understand that which is under their rule. Examples of this include the invention of surnames, standard weights and measures, street grids, scientific forestry, and freehold property. In its ambition, the state creates a model, an abstract representation of chaotic (to the outside eye) objects. Eventually, through the power of the state, the chaotic reality starts to resemble the model.

For instance, commoners adopted surnames as a way to avoid being taxed twice and to ensure ease of land inheritance. The states power in these matters made the chaotic reality of John, the son of Thomas, the son of Robert become the abstract model of John Carpenter*. In other words, the territory became the map.  This is perfectly displayed in the quote above:

“The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale.”

Their models will change your reality.

It goes beyond that, though. As I wrote earlier, the key insight of Zuboff’s analysis was that

“Corporations and other abstractive forces (like government) are becoming increasingly disentangled with the humans they profess to serve.”

When an abstractive force engages in abstraction (also meaning standardization, simplification) it inevitable discards elements of that which it seeks to model. There is no way around this. For a model to work, something must be determined cruft and that cruft must be thrown out to simplify the picture. For instance, a city map (a two dimensional model of a city) does not denote cracks in the sidewalk or even lamp posts. To include those would require a map the size of the city itself, therefore negating the maps purpose of simplification.

As you can see, the process of modeling removes the abstraction force from the full reality of that which it seeks to model. Hopefully Zuboff will be able to elaborate on the disconnect between abstractive forces and humans.

For now, I think it is most visible in the sometimes onerous ways in which progress compels us to comply. In order to get information about my heart rate, I need an Apple Watch, then I need an iPhone for it to communicate with, then I also need a PC or Mac to tether the iPhone, I also need Internet connectivity so all the software can work, and I need electricity for the hardware to function. All of that infrastructure has to be in place, paid for, and functioning in order for you to see a graph of your heart rate. Is progress our aide? Or are we serving the algorithm?

This is not a new process and has been going on for centuries. Despite my wary perception of abstraction, it is the engine behind all scientific discovery and invention. It also is behind humanity’s ability to achieve things like nation-states (via the science of administration and bureaucracy). Paradoxically, by simplifying, we are able to achieve more complex systems. What becomes simplified becomes a component of a larger, more complex entity.

*Notice also how the external identify of John Carpenter is less connected than the external identity of John, the son of Thomas, son of Robert; he stands alone.


Surveillance Capitalism, Abstractive Forces

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