Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 17 and 18

Our online book club is coming to the end of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapters 17: The Right to Sanctuary, and 18: A Coup from Above.

Age Of Surveillance_coverIn 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.)

Many Zuboff-oriented stories appeared in the news over the past few days.  Google complained about Apple, raising the specter of privacy as a luxury, and Apple  responded.  The Canadian parliament summoned Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Sanders to appear; the Facebook leaders refused.  A Washington Post column complained about iPhones supporting surveillance.  The same paper reports that the federal Justice Department and FTC have strategized antitrust moves against Amazon and Google.  Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign has made a key theme of going after big tech companies.

Summary

Chapter 17 (The Right to Sanctuary) concerns ways of opposing surveillance capitalism.  It begins by posing the idea of sanctuary as a way of thinking about privacy.  Zuboff sketches the concept’s history “as an antidote to power since the beginning of the human story” (478).  In United States federal law the Fourth Amendment appears as a related thing, offering Americans protection from unjust search; however, this tends to cover public (governmental) actions, leaving private (corporate) actors free (480).  Europe’s recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law offers some potential protection against surveillance capitalism, but Zuboff isn’t sure how it will play out.  Something akin to America’s freedom of information laws might help, letting users get into what Zuboff has called a “shadow text”: the non-public-facing backend data about users maintained by Google, Facebook, etc. (485)

Zuboff offers examples of anti-SC efforts that she finds to fall under a header of popular resistance, starting with the Austrian nonprofit None of Your Business and art projects, such as this one:

Todays selfie is tomorrows biometric profile

The chapter then adds a host of technical fixes and projects, including:

signal-blocking phone cases, false fingerprint prosthetics that prevent your fingertips from being “used as a key to your life,” LED privacy visors to impede facial-recognition cameras, a quilted coat that blocks radio waves and tracking devices, a scent diffuser that releases a metallic fragrance when an unprotected website or network is detected on any of your devices, a “serendipitor app” to disrupt any surveillance “that relies on subjects maintaining predictable routines,” a clothing line called “Glamouflage” featuring shirts covered with representations of celebrity faces to confuse facial-recognition software, anti-neuroimaging surveillance headgear to obstruct digital invasion of brain waves, and an anti-surveillance coat that creates a shield to block invasive signals. Chicago artist Leo Selvaggio produces 3-D–printed resin prosthetic masks to confound facial recognition.  (489-490)

However, these acts are not enough (491).

Chapter 18 is titled “A Coup from Above”, but is also called “Conclusion” in my edition, and does try to sum up the book.  It offers three concepts for readers to recall when summarizing surveillance capitalism:

[I]t insists on the privilege of unfettered freedom and knowledge. Second, it abandons long-standing organic reciprocities with people. Third, the specter of life in the hive betrays a collectivist societal vision sustained by radical indifference and its material expression in Big Other.(495)

For the first point (knowledge) Zuboff makes a case that surveillance capitalists undo Hayek’s theory of markets being ultimately unknowable to humans.  For the second (reciprocity), the author finds SC companies undoing fundamental social relations by denying back-and-forth with users, sidestepping feedback and negotiation.  To the third, a vision appears of humanity crushed into a digital hive.  Ultimately, Zuboff links surveillance capitalism’s rise to a global crisis of democracy and calls for a popular awakening.  “No more!” is the book’s final cry.

Questions

  1. What forms might popular opposition to surveillance capitalism take?
  2. Is it possible that other businesses might develop anti-SC business models, leading to surveillance capitalism being out-competed in the marketplace?
  3. At this point in the book, how convinced are you of Zuboff’s model?
  4. Are governments good allies against SC, or have they been compromised?

And that’s it for the book!  Next week we’ll share some conclusions and extra notes.

Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ .  You can find the reading schedule here.

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7 Responses to Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 17 and 18

  1. Re: “Is it possible that other businesses might develop anti-SC business models, leading to surveillance capitalism being out-competed in the marketplace?”

    This could be already starting with the availability of consumer VPN software, no?

  2. Mark Spradley says:

    On p. 481-2, referring to the EU’s GDPR, Zuboff says, “the question that is most important for our story is whether this new regulatory regime can be a springboard to challenging the legitimacy of SC.” The problem is that “individuals each wrestling with the myriad complexities of their own data protection will be no match for SC’s staggering asymmetries of knowledge and power.”
    On p. 484 she says “if the algorithms are to be contestable in any meaningful way” it will take “machine resources and expertise,” something like an “FDA for algorithms.”
    The hope is that regulatory agencies will have the machine resources and expertise to regulate SC. I don’t think Zuboff holds out much hope that the popular resistance to SC by artist-hackers will accomplish much.
    Your question 2 touches on a possibility that Zuboff doesn’t develop. Advertisers may realize that the number of clicks don’t correlate with the number of sales and quit paying for them. Ads are set up now so that if your cursor just floats over one, it opens. Advertisers may realize that it’s too easy to click accidentally. Also, I’m never targeted by ads that suddenly make me realize I want their product. Rather, forever after I’ve done online comparisons and bought something, I’m targeted with ads for that item which I no longer need.
    I heard something recently about Facebook News Feed that bothers me more than any of the problems that Zuboff mentions: I read that a “Wired” magazine editor said that one day recently, the number of hits their website got dropped by 80%. It didn’t take them long to find out why so few people were reading their articles that day: Facebook News Feed was down! This is probably true for all the major news sites. They depend on Facebook News Feed for people visiting their sites.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I’m quite amused by ads for products I recently purchased.

      Zuboff’s faith in the state: I can see how this would appeal to certain audiences. Technocrats, some professionals, many Democrats… but such regulation could easily become starkly partisan.

  3. Mark Spradley says:

    One more comment. On p. 502, in quoting from T.H. Breen’s “pathbreaking study,” “The Marketplace of Revolution,” Zuboff says that the British Parliament famously misjudged the rights and obligations of this partnership, imposing a series of taxes that turned imported goods such as cloth and tea into “Symbols of imperial oppression.” However, according to Colin Calloway’s “The Indian World of George Washington,” King George intended to honor the treaties he had signed at the end of the French and Indian War which established the appalachian mountains as the boundary between the colonies and Indian territory. The Stamp Tax Act, The Townshend Acts and the Tea Act were levied to maintain the British army which was charged with enforcing this boundary and protecting colonists and Indians from each other. It wasn’t just taxation without representation that the colonists fought against: it was British enforcement of the boundaries that prevented westward expansion. According to Colin Calloway, Washington was a greedy land speculator who intended to subdivide the Ohio Valley into plots to sell or rent, and he was an incompetent General who won the war only because the cost of maintaining the British army in the colonies was too great. I will have to read Breen’s book, but Calloway’s observations make me doubt that the violation of “organic reciprocities” had much to do with the origins of democracy.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point. Many factors went into the American Revolution. Reciprocity through taxes seems to only be one.

  4. Mark William Spradley says:

    A further comment on the correlation of clicks and sales. George Gilder in “Life After Google” (2018) quotes Daniel Colin James writing at a blog called “Hacker Noon” on Google’s advertising vulnerabilities. In 2015, Apple added an ad blocker to its iPhone, source of 75% of Google’s mobile ad revenues. Only 0.06% of smartphone ads are clicked through, and 50% of all clicks on ads are by mistake. Most advertising is value-subtracted, both for the consumer, who doesn’t want to see the ad, and for the advertiser, who must pay for it over and above the product. The move to voice-accessed AI further diminishes Google’s ad dominance because a voice barking ads into a search stream is much more off-putting than decorous text.
    While Zuboff suggests that regulations are the only way to challenge SC dominance, Gilder says Google is doomed because “the nearly infinite demand implicit in “free” runs into the finitude of bandwidth, optical innovation and finance.” Google can’t build data centers fast enough to maintain the cloud. Gilder says that at Google, security wasn’t hardwired in at the deepest level from the beginning, but something Google thought it could fix with updates to its software, while in the new decentralized blockchain paradigm, secure transactions will be the most fundamental level of the system. “That paradigm would leave [Google’s] data centers–with their . . . racked computing power and gigantic cooling towers linked to archaic arrays of exhibitionist “green” energy from windmills and solar cells–as vast monuments to an era that is ending” (p. 201).
    This also resonates with my earlier comments to the effect that a Green New Deal that doesn’t forsake all petroleum products and go back to breeding mules is just green washing. Even if all uses of petroleum as a fuel were replaced with energy sources which have no carbon footprint, just as much oil would have to be pumped for textiles, building materials and pharmaceuticals as is pumped now because these are different fractions of oil from that used for fuel, and fuel is only a small part of the petroleum carbon footprint. When climate change becomes so catastrophic that the global grid collapses, we will be forced to start breeding mules again. Until then, it’s all greenwashing.

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