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June 2020 issue is now available!


The Surveillance Economy


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

More often, when we try to recruit advertisers for the Mid-South Horse Review, we are told “we don’t do print, only digital advertising.” Equestrian organizations often tell us they’re only promoting their events on Facebook. In many places I go, I usually see people with their heads down, constantly focusing on their phone screen and/or thumb typing messages.  So how have devices in the “information age” so permeated our lives and what are the consequences?

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, author Shoshana Zuboff explains the commodification of personal information – usually without the persons’ consent – for vast corporate profits. It is a detailed examination of the unprecedented power of surveillance capitalism and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior.

Zuboff contrasts the mass production of industrial capitalism with surveillance capitalism, the former being interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees, and the latter preying on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and largely ignorant of its procedures.

Zuboff explains that surveillance capitalism reaches beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm and accumulates not only surveillance assets and capital, but also rights, and it operates without meaningful mechanisms of consent. Surveillance changes the power structures in the information economy, and presents a further power shift beyond the nation-state to a government dominated by corporate business interests.

According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google and later Facebook, in much the same way that mass-production and managerial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism.

In her Oxford University lecture published in 2016, Zuboff identified surveillance capitalism’s mechanisms and practices, including the manufacture of “prediction products” for sale in new “behavioral futures markets.” She introduced the concept “dispossession by surveillance” and argued that it challenges the psychological and political bases of self-determination as it concentrates rights in the surveillance regime.

But Zuboff is not the only scholar to examine this intrusion into our private lives.

Joseph Turow (2012) writes about the centrality of corporate power that is at the heart of the digital age. Capitalism has become focused on expanding the proportion of social life that is open to data collection and data processing. He sees the predictions of George Orwell’s 1984 coming to fruition – only with corporations watching you and manipulating your actions instead of government, although government is indirectly compliant in supporting this type of corporate power.  This means that one’s privacy is no longer private, but simply part of a huge database used to control society. Collecting and processing this private data, modern capitalism’s core profit-making motive, presents an inherent danger to democratic society, he says.

In 2014 Vincent Mosco referred to the marketing of information about customers and subscribers to advertisers as surveillance capitalism and makes note of the surveillance state that reinforces it. [A surveillance state is a country where the government engages in pervasive surveillance of large numbers of its citizens and visitors.] Christian Fuchs (2013) found that the surveillance state fuses with surveillance capitalism. Similarly Zuboff informs that the issue is further complicated by highly invisible collaborative arrangements with state security apparatuses.

The term “surveillance capitalism” has also been used by political economists John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney. In an article published in the Monthly Review in 2014, they describe the manifestation of the “insatiable need for data” of financialization, which they explain is “the long-term growth speculation on financial assets relative to GDP” introduced in the United States by industry and government in the 1980s that evolved out of the advertising industry.

John Naughton writes about Zuboff’s book in The Guardian. “Surveillance capitalism works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behavior of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.

“Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence.’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. These prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace called behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior.”

What the digital giants have done is, first, appropriated users’ behavioral data, viewed as a free source for the taking. Then they use patented methods to extract and infer data, even when users have explicitly denied permission. All this is conducted in a territory that has no legal regulation of this business.

Security expert Bruce Schneier wrote that “surveillance is the business model of the internet.” In an interview with Agne Pix, he says: “The internet does make the world more open and interconnected. It connects billions of people to new information and new ideas; it's incredibly empowering. But those same technologies that allow us to communicate allow other people to listen in.

“There’s nothing wrong with public social media and social networks and how we communicate through them. But we start having problems when something as powerful as Facebook is run by a for-profit corporation. It’s not operating in the interest of its users, but in the interest of their customers—the advertisers. Facebook is a company trying to make money.  But they’re making money in a regulatory world where they are allowed to exploit all of their users, spy on them, run social experiments, and manipulate them for profit.

“In some ways we’ve lost control of devices at the very beginning, when you had to be some kind of expert to understand how to use privacy and how to make security work. But that really changed with invention of the iPhone. Before the iPhone you could decide what was on your device. With the iPhone you can only put things on that device that Apple approves of.”

Naughton analyzes: “The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. Whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatized counterpart.”
Foster, John Bellamy and Robert W. McChesney. 2014. “Surveillance Capitalism.” Monthly Review Vol. 66, No. 3. July-August.
Fuchs, Christian. 2012. Political Economy and Surveillance Theory. Critical Sociology. Volume: 39 issue: 5, pages: 671-687.
Schneier, Bruce. 2017. “Surveillance Is the Business Model of the Internet.” July 18.
Turow, Joseph. 2012. The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. Yale University Press.
Naughton, John. 2019. The Goal is to Automate Us: Welcome to the Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Guardian. Jan. 20

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