Open Sesame… Big Other is Here

We have allowed so much technology into our lives, we are hardly conscious of it. From checking our mobile phones for messages from the time we awake, to streaming a film before going to bed, our entire day is lived in a technology bubble or envelope. We have never ever questioned its relevance, nor the extent to which it pervades our lives. And while many might raise doubts over data privacy issues, and authorities might sometimes raise anti-trust issues, hardly anyone has questioned technology’s need to intrude into our lives or the practices it adopts, the way Shoshana Zuboff has.

Her latest book, Surveillance Capitalism, warns us of the dangerous future that awaits us, as big tech takes control of our lives, often in tandem with government, in a bid to re-engineer society. We are seemingly in for even greater disruption than we have witnessed in the past couple of decades. And nobody but the rockstar founders and bosses of these technology companies, with their grandiloquent ideas and visions of how the world ought to be, know what is in store for us. Because they have ordained the future of human society.

I first read a review of her book accompanied by an interview in The Guardian and I thought to myself that I must read this soon. Then, I read a review in The Economist which thought her view too alarmist as though she was exaggerating the dangers of the world governed by big tech more than necessary. I am glad I bought and read Surveillance Capitalism, because I think it is a timely, well-researched critique of the way the big tech industry operates, especially in the United States, from where every other country gets its tech ideas.

The book explores the new phase of capitalism that our world is entering, and while Shoshana Zuboff has taken on an ambitious project with a vast canvas, she manages to pull it off through detailed study, sagacity and verve. I can see why The Economist reviewer thought the way he or she did, though, and I would put it to Shoshana Zuboff’s writing style. While she seems to be spot-on in the main arguments she is making and she has researched all of it well, she tends to get carried away by the strength of her convictions. Also, her frequent comparisons of tech’s instrumentarianism with totalitarianism – in which she seeks the help of Hannah Arendt often – can be somewhat distracting. Surveillance Capitalism is repetitive in many sections and could have done with better editing.

Google Headquarters, Dublin, Ireland; Image: Outreach Pete CC 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

However, none of that detracts from Shoshana’s main argument, which is that capitalism itself has evolved through the ages in what she calls “stages of modernity”, and that we are now in the third modernity where technology is stepping in to fill a vacuum in a way that surveillance becomes a way of life and humans lose individual control.

According to her, the first modernity of the post-industrial age of mass production brought the promise of a brighter future and better standards of living to many and industry rewarded individuals for their skills and hard work, at the same time benefitting entire communities. The second modernity arrived in the information age, where knowledge grew in importance and so did the level of individualization. The focus shifted to individuals and specialization and the rewards increasingly went to the better skilled and more knowledgeable. Inequality rose and communities were in retreat.

This vast chasm or gulf is what Shoshana calls the vacuum which technology is increasingly rushing to fill, using ideas and methods that are ill-suited for a human society. It neither benefits individuals (except the 1%, perhaps) nor the wider community, because its approach is collectivist, it uses surveillance and it is creating an instrumentarian society. It is forcing us to live under the constant gaze of “Big Other”, a term she has coined in allusion to George Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984, but equally an allusion to a behaviourist’s theory, as we shall see a little later.

The book is divided into three parts: the foundations of surveillance capitalism, the advance of surveillance capitalism and instrumentarian power for the third modernity. It is well-documented through years of research, interviews with industry specialists, her understanding of the legal and regulatory issues involved and her analysis of where the future of capitalism is headed. In exploring this vast subject, her focus is squarely on the companies that dominate the tech industry and whose impact is all-pervasive: Google and Facebook. Microsoft, Apple and IBM also make cameo appearances.

Mark Zuckerberg giving former Secretary, John Kerry, a tour of Facebook’s new headquarters at Menlo Park, 2016; Image: US Dept of State on Wikimedia Commons

Shoshana trains her sights on the most critical aspects of internet technology and how these companies earn their revenues and profits. Generating “behavioural surplus” through users’ internet activity, from browsing to shopping, streaming and emails, without users even being aware of it. As I have written in my previous posts on the subject, these companies are run on advertising-based business models and their revenues and profits are generated by turning the entire internet into a 24×7 giant online auction, where information garnered from our internet activity is up for sale to advertisers.

Shoshana analyses how the tech companies are now taking things to the next level, where surveillance moves from merely extracting to also predicting. And they hope to achieve this by unshackling the internet from our devices. The industry talks of “ubiquitous computing” or “ambient computing” to describe this next phase.

“Google/Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and many more companies now drawn to surveillance revenues have staked their claims on the internet’s “disappearance” because they must. Compelled to improve predictions, surveillance capitalists such as Google understood that they had to widen and diversify their extraction architectures to accommodate new sources of surplus and new supply operations. Economies of scale would still be vital, of course, but in this new phase, supply operations were enlarged and intensified to accommodate economies of scope and economies of action.,, behavioural surplus must be vast, but it must also be varied.”

Shoshana also tells us how these companies go about making sure that they are not governed by the same regulations that media companies are. They spend billions each year, lobbying US politicians and regulators. What’s more, she tells us that especially since 9/11 the US government has actively sought the help of the tech giants in improving its defence and surveillance technology capabilities. With tech giants and the government in this kind of symbiotic clinch, how can one possibly expect fair and sensible regulation?

During the course of the book, we are also introduced to the utopian thoughts and ideas of the founders of these companies, their chief tech evangelists and CEOs, and even psychologists, especially on behaviourism. As Shoshana writes at the start of a chapter titled The Instrumentarian Collective:

“Applied utopianist executives such as Page, Nadella and Zuckerberg do not say much about their theories. At best the information we have is episodic and shallow. But a cadre of data scientists and “computational social scientists” has leapt into this void with detailed experimental and theoretical accounts of the gathering momentum of instrumentarian power, providing valuable insight into the social principles of an instrumentarian society.”

Former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, at the Munich Security Conference 2018; Image: Munich Security Conference CC 3.0 Germany Licence on Wikimedia Commons

If there is Hal Varian, mastermind of behavioural surplus at Google where he is chief economist, we have Alex Pentland chief of the MIT Media Lab who perhaps understands the social dimension of behavioural surplus best, since he is most influenced by the work of pyschologists Max Meyer and BF Skinner. The sections of the book dealing with these behavioural scientists and their theories make for fascinating reading and I have already decided I must read Skinner.

Besides, having read a little of Hal Varian and Alex Pentland, thanks to reference notes provided by Shoshana Zuboff, I have to say that I am amazed and aghast at the same time, at how they view human beings as nothing more than groups meant to always be under observation, in order to serve an ostensible larger purpose. That purpose is almost always without doubt, to change society and to change the world.

Here is Alex Pentland in concluding his vision, Society’s Nervous System:

“Revolutionary new measurement tools provided by mobile telephones and other digital infrastructures are providing us with a God’s eye view of ourselves. For the first time, we can precisely map the behavior of large numbers of people as they go about their daily lives. 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 — your health checkup is magically scheduled just as you begin to get sick, the bus comes just as you get to the bus stop, and there is never a line of waiting people at city hall.“

To just give you an idea of how much power and influence these new gods of technology wield, Alex Pentland has the support of several of America’s and the world’s most powerful corporations as well as the World Economic Forum which endorses this world view. They have it all worked out.

How long from utopian vision to reality? With this kind of collectivist thinking, everything about our lives that can be mapped and predicted with certainty is being sold to governments as the new efficiency machine. Think smart cities, tracer apps, sensor-woven clothing, smart homes linked to smart utility grids… you get the picture. And with such instrumentarian power in the hands of business and governments, I think we can all guess what kind of future awaits us. A mass surveillance society is not just China.

Shoshana Zuboff informs us that BF Skinner, in his book, Science and Human Behaviour, posited that all observation, even of one’s own behaviour must be enacted from the viewpoint of the Other-One. It is a view that makes no allowance for freedom; in Skinner’s view freedom is ignorance.

Therein lies Big Other’s behaviourist allusion.

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