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).