The next human nature: reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, chapters 15 and 16

Age Of Surveillance_cover

Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and we’re approaching the end. Today we’re covering chapters 15, The Instrumentation Collective, and 16: Of Life in the Hive.

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.)

Discussion over the past week ranged over the entire reading so far.  Referring to the first chapters, Mark Corbett Wilson offered a Californian perspective on Silicon Valley and finance capital.  Mark William Spradley raised a good question about a key principle set from chapter six, one which seems to be missing.

One reader, Laura Gibbs, observed on Twitter:

 

In relevant news: a new study finds that nudges (cf chapter 10) might backfire. Several elected officials are developing laws targeting social media data-mining practices. (thanks to Nancy Margaret Saleeby) Amazon has filed a patent for tracking and responding to user emotions.

Summary

Chapter 15, The Instrumentation Collective, portrays Alex Pentland as a major thinker in surveillance capitalism.  Zuboff describes Pentland as the theorist behind the practitioners, and relies on a reading of his Social Physics (2015).  Five key principles appear: reshaping human behavior for the greater good, replacing politics with central planning, a reliance on social pressure, applying “utopistics,” and reducing individuality.  (431ff)

Pentland doesn’t stand alone.  Instead,

Pentland “completes” Skinner, fulfilling his social vision with big data, ubiquitous digital instrumentation, advanced mathematics, sweeping theory, numerous esteemed coauthors, institutional legitimacy, lavish funding, and corporate friends in high places without having attracted the worldwide backlash, moral revulsion, and naked vitriol once heaped on Harvard’s outspoken behaviorist.(418)

One key detail: while Pentland outlines a major digital-social enterprise, “[h]e never defines this “we” [in charge of it], which imposes an us-them relationship, introducing the exclusivity of the shadow text and its one-way mirror. It is an omission that haunts his text.” (430)

There is a clear academic connection here:

More than fifty of Pentland’s doctoral students have gone on to spread the instrumentarian vision in top universities, in industry research groups, and in thirty companies in which Pentland participates as cofounder, sponsor, or advisor. Each one applies some facet of Pentland’s theory, analytics, and inventions to real people in organizations and cities. (417-418)

Chapter 16: Of Life in the Hive looks for signs on an emerging surveillance order.  Zuboff sees traces of it (“the next human nature,” 461) in the addictive nature of mobile devices, casinos, and computer games. People’s sense of their self and relationship alters, becoming more grounded in digital networks.

One key psychological problem appears:

the more the need for the “others” is fed, the less able one is to engage the work of self-construction. So devastating is the failure to attain that positive equilibrium between inner and outer life that Lapsley and Woodbury say it is “at the heart” of most adult personality disorders.(456)

And a political problem also appears:

people—especially, though not exclusively, young people—now censor and curate their real-world behavior in consideration of their own online networks as well as the larger prospect of the internet masses. (472)

My favorite passage from this week’s reading:

Facebook’s leadership appears to have realized only gradually that the button could transform the platform from a book into a blizzard of mirrors, a passive read into an active sea of mutual reflections that would glue users to their news feeds. (457)

Questions

  1. What is the role of governments in maintaining surveillance capitalism?
  2. Pentland argues that most people will enjoy living within surveillance capitalism, appreciating its benefits and deeming them worthy of the costs.  What’s your take?
    For society, the hope is that we can use this new in-depth understanding of individual behavior to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of industries and governments. For individuals, the attraction is the possibility of a world where everything is arranged for your convenience… (429)
  3. At one point Zuboff criticizes Pentland for supporting unannounced surveillance (“that the continuous pervasive collection of human behavioral data could succeed only when conducted outside the boundaries of human awareness, thus eliminating possible resistance …” (424) – but doesn’t this also reduce the chances of users changing behavior when aware of being observed?
  4. Are there any other connections between surveillance capitalism and gaming, beyond the former learning addiction techniques from the latter?
  5. How else does academia participate in SC?

Next week we will look into chapters 17, The Right to Sanctuary, and 18: A Coup from Above. After that, we’ll get to the conclusion and wrap things up.

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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3 Responses to The next human nature: reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, chapters 15 and 16

  1. Alan Baily says:

    15/16-1 – I’m not sure why the question is phrased in terms of the government “maintaining” surveillance capitalism as that is exactly what is should not be doing. The government should be there to protect us from “unreasonble search and seizure” and this should be extended to the digital world.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Right, and that’s where Zuboff ends up.
      I phrased the question to draw attention to the way governments support surveillance capitalism.

      • Alan Baily says:

        This is one of my greatest fears. Up until now, the relationship between surveillance captilalism and government is somewhat tentative. It is clearly there but not yet institutionalized. Once the relationship is formalized, the totalitarian state will be ushered in. China is clearly the precursor to this. Facial recognition and the “point” system.

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