TSElosophers meeting 22.2.2019 Albrecht Becker, Elina Järvinen, Kai Kimppa, Kari Lukka, Morgan Shaw, Ekaterina Panina, Otto Rosendahl, Milla Wirén

S. Zuboff (2015) Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization, Journal of Information Technology

Quick summary

Shoshana Zuboff draws the contours of the emerging phenomenon she dubs surveillance capitalism. Its building blocks are datafication and extraction and analysis of that data, ultimately transforming the everyday lived human reality into behavior, which can be through Big Data and algorithmic analysis harvested and capitalized. She walks the reader through a set of quotes by Hal Varian from Google, to highlight how the digital technology becomes Big Other amplifying the reach of capitalism to yet another level.

Key points:

  • Big data originates from five sources: human-digital interactions, sensor technology, surveillance systems, digital transactions and extant databases
  • Extracting data from human actions is one-directional – individuals are harvested for their data in exchange for nighnothing
  • Laws and regulations lag behind because a) they are slower in realizing than the technological affordances and b) reaping the benefits of surveillance capitalism is so lucrative to firms that paying fines can be considered mere investments
  • Big Other creates markets for behavioral control: on the one side there are the producers (like Google) who extract and analyze data to derive behavioral predictions and nudging possibilities, and on the other side the advertisers who buy these to impact their customers
  • Reliance on smart contracts does not increase trust, but destroys the need for trust, as trust is based on voluntary choice

Our discussion

The overall sentiment towards the article was that it addresses and captures a genuinely powerful and worrying phenomenon, which, if left unchecked, will lead to quite a dystopian future. Some of us feared the dystopia more than others. Firstly, it was pointed out that the imperfections of technology will likely hinder the efficiency of Big Other and therefore the behavioral predictions of Zuboff are still far from overarchingly accurate (however it was retorted that the technology does not need to be perfect, just strong enough to wreak havoc). Secondly, some of the insights discuss such technological affordances still quite nascent as done deals (like the use of smart contracts in automatically shutting down a car driven ‘wrong’). Thirdly, some of the arguments rely on such research results which have subsequently been found unconvincing: for example, teenagers are not unaware of the privacy loss, and their continued use is not reflective of ignorance, but of wittingly made strategic choices of transforming privacy into currency.

Those of us who saw the article as foreboding a dystopian future (if not already present), the most difficult question was to define what then would be better? For whom, from what perspective, and why? If my hunger was satisfied before I even acknowledged it (or if my kids were automatically provided food whenever necessary without me needing to bother cooking it), why would it be so terrible? If I were given whatever I needed and wanted in exchange for being a data source, would it really be that unbearable? The answer to this seemed to boil down to the question of free will, our values and preferences about the nature and quality of life.

One of the traditionally considered basic human rights is liberty, and marketizing behavior threatens that, because it is grounded on a set of choices I cannot make for myself: Firstly, I am used as a data source without my (at least witting or informed) consent, and secondly, my behavior is deducted and monetized from this data without my consent. There may be limited options for opting out (the free will can be used in choosing what to do with the food magically appearing by my door), but there are none to predictively choose to not to opt in. However, we also noted that as the convenience level of life increases through involuntary participation in surveillance capitalism as the source of data and target of need satisfaction, the mere abstract notion of free will is not enough to make people-turned-consumers rebel against the emerging system, driven by the agents in the behavior markets. When life is just made easier, why bother?

We also discussed the power of politics. While technology always moves faster than legislation, what kind of power does the political system have in regulating the developmental trajectories, and on what is that power based on? This also led us to discussing the loci of political power; whether it will still be wielded by nation-states, or something else? Here one of us quipped that “at least so far it is the nations that still have the guns”, inferring that the states still possess a level of ultimate power over companies. Additionally, the different political choices made in the US, Europe and China were also discussed: Where the Europeans worry about the human rights (such as privacy and to an extent freedom) and legislate accordingly, the Chinese opt for technological prowess which mandates nonchalance in regards to these. The ensuing trade-offs will play out in the long run.

The fate of trust was also pondered. Zuboff states that automatic fulfillment of contracts leads to disappearance of trust, which is grounded on the choice to trust or not. It was pointed out that maybe the trust is not removed but retargeted: Instead of trust being a choice between the contracting parties, the trust could be directed towards the automated system taking care of transgressions. This was countered by noting that this would be the case only in such cases where one could freely choose to be a part of such a system, choose to trust a system, whereas the whole point of Zuboff’s article is the fact that we are given no such choice in the surveillance capitalism. If we cannot choose to not belong in a system, trust becomes irrelevant. Instead there will be an unwitting confidence to the surveillance system that involves coercion – with very low odds on awareness of, and action against, this coercion.

As is typical for TSElosophers, the discussion flowed intensively and in many directions, some merely loosely connected to the discussion in the article. We again worried about the environmental future of the globe, however also noted that ultimately we humans cannot destroy the globe and life in entirety, only human life and the currently evolved species – give it a few million years and the globe with new sets of life will have bounced back. However, the justification of worrying about, for instance, the quickly declining biodiversity was warranted by the ethical point of view that we humans – while having the powers due our un-ecological life-style – have no right to damage life on our lonely planet to the extent that is now happening.

All in all, the article triggered interesting thoughts and invigorating discussion, and as such, it is a warmly recommended read to anyone interested in gaining one possible comprehensive interpretation of the impact of the current technological advances on the society.