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.
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.)
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.
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)
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.
- What forms might popular opposition to surveillance capitalism take?
- Is it possible that other businesses might develop anti-SC business models, leading to surveillance capitalism being out-competed in the marketplace?
- At this point in the book, how convinced are you of Zuboff’s model?
- 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.