“Welcome” to the age of surveillance capitalism. The new panoptic is digital, a Big Other that, accumulating our data, acts as a surveillance device – similar to a collective superego able to remotely manage and orient human behavior, with the aim to monetize it. If we previously were «workforce», now we are «raw material» as well, says Shoshana Zuboff in her latest book “The age of surveillance capitalism”.
IF INDUSTRIAL CAPITALISM HAD DOMINATED NATURE, SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM WILL DOMINATE HUMAN NATURE.
The age of surveillance capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff, is a book that goes beyond the old categories of criticism of technology and gathers them within a new, broader framework capable of encompassing all the facets of surveillance capitalism, the form of late capitalism that is already affecting and will continue to heavily affect all production processes by remodeling the past social and political superstructures.
The author speaks of a third modernity that is impacting on society with the same power that Fordism had after the Second World War. In this dialogue among past, present and future, Zuboff refers to the great minds of the 20th century, including Karl Polanyi – who, seventy years ago, warned of the apocalyptic drift of the capitalist system and of the social and environmental catastrophes that would explode.
Zuboff follows Polany’s thoughts and spreads the ribbon forwards, in the future that is now the present, wondering what will be the fate of humanity in the shadow of the emerging surveillance capitalism.
The speed with which surveillance capitalism is imposing itself is comparable to the “shock and awe” war tactics, that is, a form of pervasive domination imposed with such a speed as to seem unavoidable.
The Congresses and Parliaments around the world cannot legislate in due time – they often do not want to – therefore politics finds itself “behind the curve” with respect to the technology surpassing it in continuous acceleration.
The difficulty of politics in keeping up with technological progress – and thus in controlling it – is reminiscent of Max Weber’s thought on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which marks the passage of politics from “emotional relations” to “economic reasons”. In other words, politics always comes close to economic power, thus the “legislative slowness” in providing precise rules to the giants of high tech is nothing more than an adaptation to the needs of the new dominant capitalism, that is, that of “surveillance”.
The affinity to be considered in this regard concerns the freedom that is granted to the technological “power” to build a position so prevalent as not to be subject to regulation, present or future. Therefore, “time” and “speed of process” play an even more crucial role in this historical moment.
Faced with a real technique of domination in a manner similar to that of war, the initial power is thus fed by a form of original accumulation, prolonged without interruption.
As David Harvey explains very well, it is “an accumulation through spoliation”, that is, through expropriation: the community is legally “spoiled” of its data, which is extracted and monetized in a continuous flow within which the wealth of the platforms, master of the information of human society, reaches unimaginable valuations.
Here we are, in the “third modernity”, says Zuboff: an era that will disrupt the old political and social categories: privacy will become an obsolete concept, and this new phase will use a destructive power. The 4th Amendment of the American Constitution, for example, will be swallowed up by the IoT, and no level of privacy will have any reason to be guaranteed when all the objects around us are connected and store information about everything we do and say.
Thus: what will privacy be like at the time of biometrics and facial recognition? This quantum leap, explains Zuboff, replaces politics with instrumental governance, i.e. the main tool of governance will become the mathematical infallibility of predictions based on available data, in a nutshell: the algorithm.
Social balances will be monitored in real time, traditional backgrounds and social classes will be replaced by behavioral clusters through which one can act, individually, to impose a collective status quo.
Social structure, behavioral and psychic repercussions. Zuboff actually retrieves the Lacanian psychoanalytical categories to describe the digital panoptic as the “Big Other”, a control device no longer despotic as the Orwellian “Big Brother”, but much more similar to a collective superego which hovers over sociality and can remotely manage and orient human behavior, as appropriate.
Hence, Zuboff’s digression on the difference between totalitarianism and instrumental governance, and on the erroneous comparison between the 1984 “Big Brother” and the current “surveillance state”: totalitarian regimes aimed to control individuals up within the soul, through social engineering projects that also used mass extermination to ensure the perfect society; instrumental governance is instead a remote control that records everything without ever intervening, gathers data but is based on the need for a status quo in turn governed by an illusory widespread freedom.
The potentiality of influencing human behavior through the “reconciled” processes of the algorithm is one of the focal points of the book. Zuboff quotes several times the American psychologist Burrhus Frederik Skinner, the expert in behavioral analysis who, in 1948, wrote a utopian novel called Walden 2 – with a clear reference to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but completely reversing its frame: the solitary life in the woods became in Skinner’s imagination a community life in which “behavioral engineering” guaranteed a peaceful and fulfilling existence to all members of the community.
Skinner’s utopia was already prophesying the disturbing and dystopian aspects of behavioral control through the algorithmic devices of what Zuboff calls the “Big Other”.
If one was willing to classify him today, Skinner would undoubtedly be one of the techno-utopists described in To Be a Machine, and it is no chance that many of his concepts are very much similar to those expressed by the “Silicon Valley ideology”.
However, Zuboff’s book, far from addressing the technological issue from a purely sociological angle, roots its arguments in the economic-financial reason, starting from the concepts of “original appropriation by subtraction” and “behavioral surplus”.
The real profit offered by technological platforms, the author says, is a behavioral surplus: the increasingly attractive digital services are used to extract data on human behavior, which are then processed, aggregated and resold to predict the future, anticipate trends or even determine them.
The real battlefield of digital capitalism is therefore reality and not the virtual world, “datify” the reality is the great challenge to be won to predict the future and monetize the heaps of data so far accumulated.
This is why Zuboff reverses today’s reading levels by asserting that the connected individual is not (only) working for the digital industry, but is providing it with the raw material – i.e. attitudinal and behavioral data, the same data to be processed by artificial intelligence and used by the very same companies to develop new services and accumulate new information.
The connected community is the mine, and the data are the result of the extraction. The A.I., finally, is the processing factory and refinery of the finished product.
Or again, to use the author’s metaphor, we can speak of the “hand and glove”: the hand is the individual, always connected, strenuously looking for a digital identity able to prove its very existence in the contemporary world, while the glove is the huge social network bubble, into which the hand enters carrying his personal information in the form of likes, snapshots and anything else – until the hand and the glove will have the same identical form, and future behavior will be automatically predictable.
The connected individual is under the illusion of having access to ever better and personalized services at no cost: actually, he is in a sort of trap in which his behavioral data are the unconscious currency of exchange.
To strengthen this concept, Zuboff resorts to a very powerful further image: the “double book” or “unidirectional mirror”: that is, on the one hand there is the public book – written by the community, that is, composed of all the data entered consciously, and therefore in the public domain; on the other, the secret book, the result of the processing of “private”, “blocked” data, “for a few”.
If the first book is free, the second is exclusive and has a market capitalization that exceeds several trillion dollars. Zuboff detects this immense information asymmetry and quotes Émile Durkheim – the French sociologist who, at the end of the 19th century, drew up the “division of social work” – to warn of the progressive economic and social imbalances which will exacerbate human society even more, crystallizing it on a status quo that will prevent conflicts and make inequalities systemic.
The most emblematic example of these “interactive” processes related to the extraction of value and the analysis of human behavior is undoubtedly the one related to the explosion – which dates back to a few years ago – of Pokemon Go: the virtual world has burst into the real one by directing human trajectories towards potential consumption spots. A general test of the new approach to places and spaces on which the smart-cities of the future – or rather: of the present – are being remodeled.
Technology, in short, from being an instrument becomes a pervasive figure of human existence. Social networks are like a huge beehive, in which everyone moves as if they were orchestrated, controlled and exploited.
According to the author, this is the historical moment in which the “surveillance” is exercised at its best and with extreme ease even on the generations that in the past were able to escape from it.
In fact, if the youngest ones would have had a period of time to enjoy in “partial freedom”, Zuboff notes, in which their personality would have been shaped before being thrown into the production processes of the adult world, now the technological time is a pervasive continuum which leaves nothing to chance.
In this respect, games and gamification represent another of the cornerstones of surveillance capitalism: on the one hand, the time of connection expanded through games on the Internet; on the other, gamification as an engaging strategy in non-recreational activities (jobs) through playful stimuli such as scores, levels and records to be overcome.
Zuboff’s detailed treatise, which we have tried to summarize here, ends with a bitter note in which the author sums up all her analysis work defining the surveillance capitalism as a sort of “peaceful top-down coup”, perpetrated without bloodshed but aimed at a true overthrow of power, which happens thanks to the Trojan horse of technology.
The technology that currently allows Capital to take possession of an unprecedented amount of knowledge, and to use it to extract value and disproportionately increase its power.
If industrial capitalism had dominated nature, surveillance capitalism will dominate human nature.
An apocalyptic vision? Maybe. Or perhaps, a thorough critical examination of the historical moment we live in, to warn us of the new fronts of social struggle, so that human behavior is not commodified. Instead, there should be attempts to make it free – also and above all by virtue of technological progress – from the ruthless dynamics of the free market and from physical and virtual manipulations.