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Surveillance Capitalism

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In her ground breaking book Shoshana Zuboff states that surveillance capitalism “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data which 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.” She goes on to say that these new capitalist products “are traded in a new kind of marketplace,” that she calls behavioral future markets. I only read the first two chapters and was blown away by what Zuboff unveils. According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google (big surprise) and later Facebook (shocker) in much the same way that mass-production and industrial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism. Throughout the chapters she compares and contrasts mass production of the industrial capitalism era with surveillance capitalism of today. The former being dependent on its populations which were at the time its consumers and employees. But now we are not any of those things, not employees nor consumers. We are naïve to what it is we are signing up for and ignorant to their procedures. So what do they want from us? In her book she discusses the differences between industrial capitalism and surveillance capitalism. Zuboff writes: “industrial capitalism exploited the nature, surveillance capitalism exploits human nature.” Powerful stuff! In the opening chapter she asks the question: “Can the digital future be our home? Where exactly is home now? The idea of home is slipping away and fast. After reading these two chapters I can easily see what Zuboff means when she says we are turning into a “information civilization.” In our fast paced, ever changing algorithmic world our once safe place, our home, is no longer our private sanctuary or place of refuge. To be honest with you I felt that way from the moment I connected to AOL over twenty years ago on my very first at home desk top PC. I knew even as a young teenager that the moment I clicked that mouse, my world would be changed forever. And I was right. Did I know how dramatically it would change and impact me and the world around me? Not exactly, but I knew the world wide web was way more powerful and dangerous then little ole me.

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Learning about “Aware Home” and The Nest thermostat was very eye opening. It was interesting to read about the evolution of all these digital products and what impact it has had on our world and digital culture. With mega giants like Apple, Microsoft and Facebook pumping out new products almost weekly its hard to keep up. No wonder consumers today don’t take the time to read the privacy policy or terms of service and end-user licensing agreement. That’s hard to do when a super new, shiny Apple iPad is on your screen and you just get so damn excited about the features and when you can buy it that nothing else really matters. I’ve been guilty of agreeing to terms I know nothing about. For me it was a Apple iTunes cooking game that I was obsessed with! I loved this game so so much I would have signed my soul away in a heartbeat just to continue playing! What’s happening to us?! What are the consequences for our future? So far things look bleak. What started out with good intentions like “Aware Home” has quickly turned into more diabolical products being sold today, like The Nest, which have very oppressive security consequences and breeches which they take no responsibility for. Zuboff says: “What does this sea of change mean for us, for our children; for our democracies, and for the very possibility of a human future in a digital world?” She sets out to answer these difficult questions in her book but there are no easy answers. The scariest part for me is how its not becoming more about just knowing our behavior, but now the shift is in shaping our behavior. Again this ties back to some of our past readings and the ominous cloud that seems to be hovering above us all. The positive digital connection we once hoped for seems to be all about commercial ends. Zuboff then goes on to explain the term: instrumentarianism. Instrumentarianism power knows and shapes human behavior towards other ends. Surveillance capitalism products and services are not the objects of a value exchange. It seems like we the consumers are being used as bait, and they are hooking and luring us in.

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Chapter 2: August 9, 2011: Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism offers a fast yet dense history of the economic and technological developments that led to the present day.  Zuboff starts a century ago with the rise of mass production and the development of modernity, culminating in a deeper sense of individual identify capable of being socially supported.  She sees Apple as capturing that sense by marketing its digital music platform to very individualized tastes. The flip side of this strategy is that companies can do other things with individualized data besides serving them better, including seeking not only to predict, but modify behavior. By the late 20th century a reaction to this mixed economy set in, as a more pro-market form of capitalism – neoliberalism – took hold. Shareholder value became central to company operations, so the pressure to boost short-term profits expanded. Digital companies in this contemporary context have little concern for regulation and a lot of interest in generating cash quickly more so that their predecessors. Yet while this was happening, countermovement’s arose.  Zuboff concludes the chapter with a summary of the “rights to be forgotten” legal movement, including California’s online erasure law. The Spanish citizens who stood up and fought for their rights to be forgotten was so poignant and poetic to me. It really resonated with me and my own ambivalent feeling towards the influx of technology, and social media. Sometimes I want to be forgotten, I still second guess myself every time I surf the web. I wonder who is watching me? Who is collecting my own personal data? Now I think I have more answers and it leaves me feeling more unsettled. Google, Apple and Microsoft for sure have their eyes on me, on all of us. There are also vast disparities between Europe and the U.S. when it comes to laws and regulations. I learned more about this after looking closer at the “right to be forgotten” movement. I hope and pray that powerful books like these, along with powerful people like Zuboff who seem to be personally invested and passionate about this, begin to produce real change and movement for more regulations and laws aimed to protecting us and not exploiting us. These billion dollar companies shouldn’t have the right to continue luring us in and spitting us out just for more money, greed and power. Haven’t they taken enough from us already? I embedded this video below! Hope you all enjoy it and are staying safe. I miss you guys and hope to see you soon! Xo

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