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Surveillance Capitalism I: How digital platforms watch, track & control you
A new brand of oppression that is packaged as technological innovation -- a collab series!
We spend most of our lives online—socializing, learning, working, consuming media and entertainment, so much so that there are virtual curated personas of us. Life was drastically different before the age of Google and Facebook in that while our perception of the world and ourselves was still influenced heavily by the information we consumed through TV, entertainment, media, and state curated education- majority of our social networking still happened in “real life”. However, as technology leaped forward- it gave birth to digital capitalism; an insidious, subtle but powerful force that dictates our lives in ways that are stealthy and illusive to us. In this newsletter series, we will breakdown the architecture and impact of digital capitalism on our communities to really show that the integrity of the human experience, our relationships and community building is at stake.
“Industrial capitalism transformed nature’s raw materials into commodities, and surveillance capitalism lays its claims to the stuff of human nature for a new commodity invention. Now it is human nature that is scraped, torn, and taken for another century’s market project. It is obscene to suppose that this harm can be reduced to the obvious fact that users receive no fee for the raw material they supply. That critique is a feat of misdirection that would use a pricing mechanism to institutionalize and therefore legitimate the extraction of human behavior for manufacturing and sale. It ignores the key point that the essence of the exploitation here is the rendering of our lives as behavioral data for the sake of others’ improved control of us. The remarkable questions here concern the facts that our lives are rendered as behavioral data in the first place; that ignorance is a condition of this ubiquitous rendition; that decision rights vanish before one even knows that there is a decision to make; that there are consequences to this diminishment of rights that we can neither see nor foretell; that there is no exit, no voice, and no loyalty, only helplessness, resignation, and psychic numbing; and that encryption is the only positive action left to discuss when we sit around the dinner table and casually ponder how to hide from the forces that hide from us.” Shoshana Zuboff in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”
Technology is not neutral
Technology is touted as an apolitical, neutral, “objectively” benevolent entity that epitomizes human creativity, innovation and is merely created to improve the quality of human life. Information technology—search engines like Google, social media platforms, entertainment streaming, online gaming, etc are all generally portrayed as forces of “good” that have drastically improved human connection and increased accessibility of knowledge. However, technology like science as a whole is a tool which when created by the capitalist state is a tool of extraction, exploitation, control, repression and subjugation.
For example, the results generated by search engines which we presume are neutral and objective, are actually the most popular, paid for results. When money is an incentive shaping the quality of results, search engines are not an accessible global public library as they are made out to be. A 2020 study showed that Google’s Keyword Planner that prioritizes search results equated “Black girls” with pornographic search results indicating that “Google’s systems contained a racial bias that equated people of color with objectified sexualization while exempting White people from any associations whatsoever. In addition, by not offering a significant number of non-pornographic suggestions, this system made it more difficult for marketers attempting to reach young Black, Latinx, and Asian people with products and services relating to other aspects of their lives.” As Safiya Noble states in her book Algorithms of Oppression:
“It demonstrates that search engines, and in particular Google, are not simply imperfect machines, but systems designed by humans in ways that replicate the power structures of the western countries where they are built, complete with all the sexism and racism that are built into those structures.”
Algorithms are designed by people baked in with all the oppressive biases and power structures that define human societies. “Run a Google search for “black girls”—what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls,” the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.” Monetary incentives driving prioritization of certain search results along with the monopoly of companies like Google in the realm of search engines creates biased data science systems and algorithms that privilege whiteness and the “West” and discriminate against communities of color and the Global South.
How the commodification of the human mind & experience is made to feel inevitable
Digital and surveillance capitalism really is an unprecedented form of human subjugation and oppression which impedes our ability to identify it as harmful and understand the perpetrators behind it. Neoliberalism provides a protective shield for capitalism by packaging oppression as freedom, positivity, and the “American dream” such that oppressed subjects willingly exploit themselves for capital. It sells us the idea that we are “free” because we “choose” to sell our bodies and minds in the form of labor. The assumption of technology’s neutrality makes the infrastructure of digital capitalism seem inevitable—it feels like it is an unchangeable law of nature that we have to just live with and we’re here to tell you how it’s very much a fabricated system designed to instill this learned helplessness into you. We assume that all technological innovation & modernity are humane forms of “progress” even though the only technology that has been allowed to progress is that borne out of colonialism.
Now since we do spend the majority of our lives online, it can be jarring, confusing, terrifying to even imagine alternatives. Capitalism’s greatest power is its sense of all-encompassing inevitability which adds an invisible constraint to our mind to prevent it from being able to imagine a world without capitalism. Everything we do, from paying rent, taxes, getting our education, building a “brand” online for the job market— it requires our default participation in the same virtual channels that digital and surveillance capitalism use to exploit us. However, understanding the infrastructure of social media platforms and how they wield power allows us to also build power on our own terms, identify which channels are less extractive as a harm reduction strategy & turn to alternative decentralized platforms.
What is surveillance/ digital capitalism?
Traditional capitalism: Capitalists commodify everything into products that must be bought on a market. We sell our bodies and minds in the form of labor to earn access to commodities—food, water, shelter, healthcare, etc.
Digital capitalism: You are the commodity that is being sold- your thoughts, behaviors, interactions, the most private aspects of your existence which are extracted to generate algorithms to predict your behavior. Digital capitalism commodifies the human experience itself as free raw material and translates it into behavioral data that can be sold to companies & leveraged by the state (Zuboff, 2019). Data collected from users is then utilized to target and manipulate those very same users. It began with free search engines like Google who collected information and personal data about their users (the raw materials and resources) to then build better predictive products.
Google also realized that offering services to users for free was an opportunity to get users to mold the algorithms themselves without being compensated for their labor. For example, giving users free access to geocaching games allowed Google maps to be fine tuned with free mapping data or AI reading software that was optimized by forcing users to engage with captchas. This extended to social interactions and eventually became the entire infrastructure of our lives. The driver behind surveillance capitalism is the need to collect as much data as possible and to this end, barriers to access technology itself are decreased. Today, the smartphone you use isn’t the “hot, profitable commodity”, it is the data generated from that smartphone tracking what you do on the internet, where you go (GPS), and how you behave that is really profitable. To be able to build better algorithms, they need as much data as possible. Therefore, the fact that search engines and social media platforms are free and easy to access is not a form of benevolence but critical for surveillance capitalism to operate.
The goal isn’t to just predict your behavior, it is to shape it
Surveillance capitalism is the big brother that observes how we think, what we like and dislike in order to build predictive machine learning algorithms. The bulk of Google, Amazon, and Facebook’s revenue stream and focus was on predicting human behavior to feed into targeted digital advertising. Prediction accuracy is higher with more data so surveillance capitalism is incentivized by gathering as much data on us as possible. However, it doesn’t end there. The best algorithms not only predict outcomes but can effectively intervene and produce desired outcomes.
The subjugation of algorithms extends beyond targeted marketing of products based on what you like. The most insidious outcome of these algorithms is modification and manipulation of human behavior and in a world where children now enter the belly of surveillance capitalism with smartphones and technology in their formative, early years, these algorithms shape their entire perception of the world and themselves.
Surveillance capitalism allows the capitalist state to not only tell you what to buy but also to tell you what to think, who to like and dislike, when to be distressed, how to perceive your self-worth, etc. As Zuboff states “It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us”. I.e. it is the most effective and covert form of state propaganda where rather than speaking to you through your T.V. or the newspaper, you’re being molded in ways you cannot even wrap your mind around. Even the creators of this tech are unable to fully grasp the magnitude of the long-term consequences on humanity of such large-scale, constant, behavioral modification. The goal of surveillance capitalism has always been to build tools to predict and then shape human behavior without the subject ever being aware.
The most profitable “tech” today are highly sophisticated social conditioning apparatus’ which are used by the capitalist state to accurately condition our desires, manipulate our behaviors, influence our sense of identity and culture, and otherwise fabricate media encounters that work to produce a particular kind of consumer market that best serves some corporation. For example, ADHD tiktok ads are not simply selling to an existing market—they are actively curating and producing the market to which companies want to sell. They are convincing people to pursue diagnoses in order to pathologize themselves as disordered or defective while they are isolating them from sources of support like community in real life. Essentially, users have nowhere to turn but where apps tell them to and this is how capitalism has created an industry selling you (non)solutions to the problems it created. These platforms also take advantage of our innate need and desire to connect and forge relationships with like-minded people. Companies capitalize on the fact that people turn to virtual spaces to access peer support and use this “hook” to reel users in.
Digital technology was designed to oppress us- this is not a “side effect” of it
As Facebook was interrogated in the aftermath of the Cambridge analytica scandal where user data was used to control outcomes of political elections, the surveillance of people’s most intimate behavior was portrayed to be a one-off “mistake”. They say no one was “intentionally” listening on you to control you but it was to improve the user experience on their platforms, to make their products serve the consumers better, to be more “user friendly”. Surveillance capitalists also have the typical retort of “well if you don’t want anyone to know something, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” which sums up how the capitalist state gaslights us into accepting surveillance, exploitation and oppression as the way society just is. What we want to push you to do is question if you’ve ever really had total free will and autonomy in making any decision in your life if it was all under the threat of capitalism’s coercion and forces that shape your behavior in ways you didn’t even know.
Nothing is given to us for free & innovation is not benevolent. It is just more capitalist & state exploitation
People presume when social media platforms improve user interfaces or add “fun” ways to engage, that the motivation behind this is to allow users to experience more joy or benefit from the advances. However, capitalism incentivizes profit and it is critical for you to understand that anything provided by a corporation is not merely out of their “good will”. For example, the transformation of the Facebook “like” button into a host of emoji reactions may seem like Facebook is giving you more options to show how you feel about a post. Except Facebook is operating under the extraction imperative, that they want as much behavioral data from you as possible and the emoji reactions are aimed at getting more data about your emotions. You can only infer so much from a simple “like,” but reading a user’s sad, angry, or happy reactions could allow much better predictions about your current and future mood.
Examples of how the infrastructure of digital platforms shapes your behavior
Algorithms can feed you certain posts repeatedly to make you feel sad or more uplifted, google maps can route you a certain direction to your destination to also elicit a similar response. Apps also log your daily movements and generate targeted ads to guide your behavior. For example, you will receive prompted ads for products at stores you frequently drive by on the way to work. You might be familiar with the “echo chamber” aspect of social media platforms. However, there are clearly major social implications of us being confined to consuming information through solely an affirming lens that validates certain pre-existing beliefs that conform or assimilate into existing systems of oppression. More importantly, in order to increase accuracy of their algorithms, surveillance capitalism thrives on more data which means platforms are designed to increase user engagement as much as possible- even if most of your time is spent on them and even if it is at the expense of your health & wellbeing.
The goal of virtual platforms is to consume as much of your time as possible because this generates more data for them but also because it enables dependence, addiction and reliance on said platforms. Virtual platforms have become the primary, dominant source of how people obtain information about the world- except that information is not neutral and unbiased. You are presented with a specific set of information designed to make you feel a certain way, see the world a certain way and make certain decisions. The longer you are on these platforms, the less time you are spending with people in real life. The longer you are on these platforms and the less community you have access to in real life, the more control corporations and the state have over framing your perception of the world, your thoughts and behaviors.
Nir Eyal’s book Hooked describes the algorithm-based user engagement model meant to manufacture a constant uncontrollable desire to engage with digital platforms which in itself shows the insidious incentives shaping their architecture. They create a perpetual cycle called the “Hook Model”:
The goal of the hook approach is addiction & habit formation. Period. It mirrors the same business models behind gambling casinos. Through consecutive Hook cycles, successful products reach their ultimate goal of unprompted user engagement, bringing users back repeatedly, without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging. The more push notifications a user responds to by engaging with the platform, sharing posts, liking, commenting, saving and sharing, following or unfollowing pages to have a curated feed, the more the trigger shifts from external to internal and leads to the formation of the habit.
“Surveillance capitalism’s products and services are not the objects of a value exchange. They do not establish constructive producer-consumer reciprocities. Instead, they are the ‘hooks’ that lure users into their extractive operations in which our personal experiences are scraped and packaged as the means to others’ ends. We are not surveillance capitalism’s ‘customers’... We are the sources of surveillance capitalism’s crucial surplus: the objects of a technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction operation.” - Zuboff, 2019
Increased engagement and dependence via the hook model guarantee an endless stream of raw materials and resources in the form of behavioral data which generates two benefits: 1) consumers for targeted advertising but more so, 2) it ensures people will spend most of their lives on these platforms where they can be watched, controlled and manipulated. This is especially difficult when existing is society requires us to by default engage on all these platforms. If we zoom out and think about capitalism as a whole—our participation in it as a system is not voluntary, it is coerced, and we have no choice but to earn the right to live in a society where basic survival necessities like food, water and shelter are commodified.
Similarly, if we want to keep up with popular culture, socialize, and maintain some level of connectivity, we have to exist on these platforms. We rely on these platforms to get us places with digital navigation, to search information, to learn, to communicate via email, and know what is happening around the world. Capitalism curates and constructs our reality by showing us what they want us to see. We also create and participate in culture by relying heavily on these platforms to convene or build community. We cannot even participate in our cultural traditions with dignity when most of them have been commodified and turned into products.
The main aspects of human existence that has been disrupted by digital capitalism is:
The window of time humans have to adapt to rapid emergence of unprecedented technology has been decreasing since the dot com era.
The amount of time we spend building relationships in-person and the amount of information we consume through channels regulated by the capitalist state as opposed to the people we exist in community with.
The largest contingency of consumers on these platforms are the youngest of us (children & young adults up to 29 years old) during key formative years where not only is our physiology developing but we are incorporating information that will shape our identity and our perception of the world.
Origin story from ground zero to surveillance capitalism infecting the infrastructure of our daily lives
Google was the first corporation to package massive user data into predictive products that created a whole new market. Currently, the biggest “Big Brother” actors are Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Together, they collect and control unparalleled quantities of data about our behaviors, which they turn into products and services. Google, for instance, processes an average of 40,000 searches per second, 3.5 billion per day and 1.2 trillion per year. Its parent company, Alphabet, was recently valued at US$822 billion. However, search engines were limiting and once Google realized the potential for profit behind monitoring and controlling our behavior—they expanded to other areas of human life which began a vicious “dispossession” cycle where their main aim was to find stealthy ways to gain access to information about us that was previously considered private. The mandatory “terms and conditions agreements” required to use apps are so long and ubiquitous that we click “accept” without giving it a second thought and without ever being aware of the fact that we are signing away our privacy.
In 2008, Facebook had 150 million users but no revenue generation stream which all came from them realizing that they could sell “guaranteed outcomes”: expected user responses to stimuli. This is what ended up spiraling into Cambridge Analytica where large volumes of Facebook-originated data could effectively sell ideas, not just products. They are credited with significant ideological movements influencing both the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. Surveillance corporations established monopoly by eliminating competitors (acquiring them or suing them). Amazon used its retail dominance to launch life-integration products like the ‘Echo’ smart speaker and ‘Ring’ home automation product line. This has established mass data collection hubs at the center of our domestic lives. The corporations watching us know everything about us while we know nothing about them which creates a large power asymmetry leveraged for total control.
Let’s imagine society as being made up of 1) The base: the parts of society that produce the survival resources that are essential for life (food, shelter, care, etc) like raw materials (from nature) including us workers; and 2) The superstructure: society’s other relationships & cultural aspects like dominant norms & ideologies, power structures, religion, media, etc. Both parts influence & shape each other-
Surveillance capitalism has transformed the base & superstructure dynamics:
We must take seriously the threat that surveillance capitalism poses not only to our basic freedoms, but also to our very humanity itself. In the next part of this series, we will provide a further philosophical examination of how digital platforms influence our ideas about community, identity, and expression in order to covertly coerce us into being obedient consumers and producers of capitalist culture.
AK and Sprank.