Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 13: Big Other and the Rise of Instrumentarian Power, along with chapter 14: A Utopia of Certainty.
In this post I’ll summarize the chapters, then add some observations and questions. I’ll also recap what readers have shared.
How can you respond? You, dear reader, can respond through whichever technological means make the most sense to you. You can comment on each blog post. You can also write on Twitter, LinkedIn, your own blog, or elsewhere on the web. (If that sounds strange, here are some examples of previous readings, complete with reader responses.)
Chapter 13 (Big Other and the Rise of Instrumentarian Power) picks up right where chapter 12 left off, continuing to develop the instrumentarian idea. Zuboff maintains the contrast with totalitarianism, even offering tables:
This lets Zuboff explore links between the surveillance capitalism business model and governmental roles in encouraging or conducting surveillance. The United States and China are the primary states here, and it is clear that each encouraged surveillance capitalism in their own ways.
With Chapter 14, A Utopia of Certainty, Zuboff digs more deeply into SC’s ambitions. She sees them as totalizing and also utopian, starting to apply the term “utopistics” to describe how they can be realized.
Much of [Larry] Page’s future vision turns out to be stock utopian fare, themes that have been repeated for millennia. Page anticipates machine intelligence that restores humankind to the Garden of Eden, lifting us from toil and struggle into a new realm of leisure and fulfillment. He foresees, for example, a future society graced by “abundance” in all things, where employment is but a “crazy” distant memory. (p. 401)
In this chapter Facebook and Google offer up vast ambitions to not only organize the world’s information and connect everybody, but to create new mechanisms for decision-making at enormous scale and to spark more human creativity. Naturally to make this work human behavior must be corralled and constrained, driving humans to behave more like machines, and involving an “all-out war on accidents, mistakes, and randomness in general.” (409)
humans [will] emulate the superior learning processes of the smart machines. This emulation is not intended as a throwback to mass production’s Taylorism or Chaplin’s hapless worker swallowed by the mechanical order. Instead, this prescription for symbiosis takes a different road on which human interaction mirrors the relations of the smart machines as individuals learn to think and act by emulating one another… (p. 414)
- If surveillance capitalism can deliver certain utopian goods (“a new realm of leisure and fulfillment. He foresees, for example, a future society graced by “abundance” in all things, where employment is but a “crazy” distant memory”), wouldn’t many people find the privacy rendition to be a worthy trade-off?
- At the end of chapter 13 Zuboff calls on us to resist and organize, reawakening democracy. How can we do this if that democracy is the same state that encouraged surveillance and performs its own snooping and analysis?
- Chapter 14 describes the ominous possibility of using “the interface between the computer and the real world… [to enable you to] search the real world for people, objects and activities, and apply policies to them.…” (410; emphases in original). Yet isn’t this what many human institutions already do, such as human resources departments?
- Zuboff describes a creepy-sounding Microsoft patent for a machine that “would alert ‘trusted individuals’ such as family members, doctors, and caregivers” in case of an anomaly. The tech would also connect with “health care providers, insurance companies, and law-enforcement personnel.”( 412) . That sounds like the experience of being a patient in long-term or mental health care. Is surveillance capitalism inspired by health care’s less humane aspects?
- If surveillance capitalism is based on extensive individual details, how can it also flatten personal differences?
Next week, on May 27th, we will advance to chapters 15 (The Instrumentation Collective) and 16 (Of Life in the Hive).