Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Today we’re covering chapter 9: Rendition from the Depths, and chapter 10: Make Them Dance.
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.)
From the news: a Lancet editorial recommended we think of personal data not in terms of oil, but akin to human blood – i.e., something extensively safeguarded on multiple levels.
Meanwhile, Facebook announced some feature changes, including a new emphasis on privacy and a look at people’s secret romantic longing. Wired pithily responded with this tweet:
Facebook: Your privacy is important to us and we're making big company shifts to protect it.
Also Facebook: Please give us a list of which of your friends you would like to sleep with. https://t.co/gN5qEzpF4A
— WIRED (@WIRED) April 30, 2019
On Medium, Alexander Malkay Hayes offered this general observation in response to one of our ongoing questions:
Now, on to this week’s reading.
With chapter 9: Rendition from the Depths, Zuboff focuses on personalization services. Rather than seeing them as boons for customers, the author argues that they require extensive data-gathering from users in disempowering ways. Voice interfaces (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, etc.) carry this even further, since those devices can record a continuous stream of input, and our comfort with speech lets our guard down. Smart tvs have a similar capacity, as do some digitally augmented toys.
Moreover, companies can build up such surveillance without the controls we normally attach to intimate professional relationships:
Doctors, accountants, and attorneys are held to account by mutual dependencies and reciprocities dictated by the extensive institutionalization of professional education, codes of conduct, and procedures for evaluation and review. Violation of these rules risks punishment in the form of professional sanction and public law. Google and its brethren in surveillance capitalism bear no such risks. (256)
Another side effect of the digitally mediated self on corporate platforms appears in the discussion of a company’s internal discussion forum. DIALOG (269ff) apparently drove one firm’s employees into a nearly paranoid state.
Zuboff connects personalization to prediction, using a range of examples to show various companies trying to build predictive models out of user data, from IBM to Cambridge Analytica.
One aspect of personalization is machine modeling of user emotion, also known as affective computing. This leads to one very ambitious and possibly disturbing vision:
This is the commercial context in which Kaliouby came to feel that it is perfectly reasonable to assert that an “emotion chip” will become the base operational unit of a new “emotion economy.” She speaks to her audiences of a chip embedded in all things everywhere, running constantly in the background, producing an “emotion pulse” each time you check your phone: “I think in the future we’ll assume that every device just knows how to read your emotions.”(289)
With chapter 10, Make Them Dance, Surveillance Capitalism turns to move active behavior by surveillance capitalists, starting with the popular nudging idea and BF Skinner’s operant conditioning psychology. Zuboff isn’t as critical of nudging as she is of its use by businesses, because while publicly minded choice architecture is putatively benign, surveillance capitalism’s “nudges are intended to encourage choices that accrue to the architect, not to the individual.” (295) Leading examples of this practice include Facebook’s various efforts (that we know of) to influence user voting and moods as well as Pokemon Go’s strategy of getting players interacting with the physical world.
These expansions of surveillance technology are often successful, but Zuboff points to a series of Congressional actions in the early 1970s that investigated and limited multiple government surveillance and behavior modification programs (for example). The chapter praises the Belmont Report (1974) as a source of regulating behavior modification.
Pithy quote for this week:
There was a time when you searched Google, but now Google searches you. (262)
- This week’s chapters take us beyond Facebook and Google. Just how widespread is surveillance capitalism?
- Does chapter 10’s historical review of 1970s-era governmental actions give us useful models for the present day?
- Are there benign uses of nudging? For example, increasing voter turn out is surely something most people would support.
- Can we structure personalization services that are not terrible?
Next week we move on to chapters 11 (The Right to the Future Tense) and 12 (Two Species of Power).
Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ . You can find the reading schedule here.
No comments on Zuboff’s treatment of Pokemon Go? One of the reasons I read this book was to learn more about Pokemon Go. I have two daughters who are 30 and 32 years old. They loved Pokemon in the 1990s, and they have totally embraced Pokemon Go. My older daughter finished her medical residency and got a job with a major HMO as a family practice doctor when she was thirty. Her husband finished his PhD in Physics that year and got a tenured position teaching at a community college. I can’t help think she could have been a surgeon and he could have been a university professor if they both weren’t gaming addicts. All the music they listen to and all the history they know seems to be from games. Pokemon Go is a very small part of this daughter’s gaming life, but it totally consumes my younger daughter. She has autism, and far from making her more social as Niantic labs’ CEO John Hanke hoped, Pokemon Go allows her to disengage completely from other people on group outings. Yes, it gets her outside, but she is staring at her phone the whole time. She attends a community based program, and all her peers and all the staff are sick of Pokemon Go. When they ask her to quit playing, she says over and over, “Don’t you know? Pokemon Go is a location based game.” They don’t know and they don’t care. Sometimes in the evening, she asks me to drive her down the street to an LDS church and a little further to an empty church building whose congregations last a couple years, and then it’s empty again. Pokemon haunt churches late at night. Her mother controls when she can access the app, and she counts the minutes until she can play. The threat of not being able to access the app is her biggest motivator. To place her on the spectrum, she can text, but speaking on the phone baffles her. When I am driving and ask her to call her mother, and she gets the answering machine, she can’t understand that it is a recording of her mother’s voice. She becomes angry and yells into the phone, “mom, why do you keep saying that?” She also likes an online game named Pokemon Playhouse, but she constantly asks us, “Pokemon Playhouse is for ages 3-7. I’m old enough, right?” We answer, “no, you’re too old,” and she says, “no, I’m old enough,” . . . “too old,” . . . “old enough” . . . et ad infinitum.
I have never been a game player, and I think the iPhone is the worst invention ever.