Our online book club continues reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapters 7 (“The Reality Business”) and 8 (Rendition: From Experience to Data).
In this post I’ll summarize the chapters, then add some observations and questions. I’ll also recap what readers have shared since the last post.
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.)
In the news: Siva Vaidhyanathan called for international regulation of Facebook (thanks to Barbara Fister for the link). Also, remember how Zuboff saw Microsoft’s embrace of surveillance capitalism as excellent for its bottom line? MS just saw its total valuation pass $1 trillion.
Chapter 7 (“The Reality Business”) takes us to the internet of things, beginning with the theme of ubiquitous computing, first articulated in Weiser’s classic 1991 paper. This describes not computers everywhere, but computation that is both omnipresent and so woven into daily life as to no longer be noteworthy. For surveillance capitalism, this means information-gathering technology that must always expand its reach throughout daily life, as well as attaining sufficient power to generate predictions of user behavior.
Surveillance capitalism’s form of ubiquitous computing also leads to actions designed to influence users. “Economies of action mean that real-world machine architectures must be able to know as well as to do.” (203)
they nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions by executing actions as subtle as inserting a specific phrase into your Facebook news feed, timing the appearance of a BUY button on your phone, or shutting down your car engine when an insurance payment is late.(202)
Zuboff expands on this point by comparing the technology to tagging and garnering telemetry information from animals in the wild. She then finds recent MIT Media Lab experiments which might point to ways of digitally capturing more from reality, like DoppelLab and ListenTree.
Other companies add to Zuboff’s catalog of surveillance capitalism firms in this chapter, notably IBM (for Watson) and insurance companies (for autonomous cars) (211, 213).
Zuboff criticizes a rhetoric of inevitability around the growth of ubiquitous computing, especially when it reaches the smart city level. Citing Steinbeck and Marx, she urges us to reimagine ourselves in control of technological processes.
Chapter 8 continues 7’s examination of the internet of things by focusing on what Zuboff terms “rendition,” “intelligence that is designed to render some tiny corner of lived experience as behavioral data.” (p. 238) IoT devices enable an extension of user data capture. Location data is important here, and companies’ attempts to anonymize them can often be undone (244-5). Biometrics looks likely to become a major new frontier for surveillance capitalism.
Rendition describes the concrete operational practices through which dispossession is accomplished, as human experience is claimed as raw material for datafication and all that follows, from manufacturing to sales.(233-234)
Passage of the week: I admit that this one offered some needed laughter,
Examples of products determined to render, monitor, record, and communicate behavioral data proliferate, from smart vodka bottles to internet-enabled rectal thermometers, and quite literally everything in between. (p. 238)
- People can be very sensitive about their bodies and health. Is it likely that what Zuboff refers to as “body rendition” will push us too far, and we’ll resist? Or are we so anxious about health, and so used to unpleasant medical experiences, that we’ll put up with a full surveillance capitalist regime in the hopes of improving our conditions?
- Last week Barbara Fister linked educational technology to “surveillance as a service.” Do you see further connections between ed tech and Zuboff’s dark vista?
- Personally, I could not read the chapter on rendition without thinking of the war on terror (black sites, etc.). Did anyone else see that connection? If so, what do we make of it?
- Several times the author identifies academic projects that feed surveillance capitalism. Should universities rethink their support of such research and development? Should they encourage anti-surveillance research like this?
Next week we’ll continue with chapter 9, Rendition from the Depths, and chapter 10: Make Them Dance.