Surveillance Capitalism&nbspEssay


In Part II of her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff (2019) lays out how the advance of surveillance capitalism has unfolded and where it is headed.  In chapters 7 and 8, she makes two very important points—one practical and the other ideological—that necessarily serve as the framework for the advance of surveillance capitalism.  The practical point is this:  the world has become so immersed in the Internet that it will seem as though the Internet has disappeared, to paraphrase the words of Eric Schmidt at Davos; but of course it is only disappearing in the same sense that water disappears to fish who swim in it.  The reality is that everyone will have so thoroughly immersed themselves in the Internet-of-Things (IoT) that they will no longer realize just how dependent upon the Internet and by extension surveillance capitalism they truly are.  It will be just like breathing air to them:  organic, natural, unforced, as though this was simply the way things are and have always been—integrated, connected, everything seen and controlled by an invisible force that links and unites one and all.  That is the practical point.  The ideological point is this:  it requires what Zuboff (2019) terms the “sur-render” of the people to the idea that their behavioral data is itself a commodity that they must willingly give up in exchange for the services that the IoT provides.  One common modern maxim is, “If you don’t know what the product is, you’re the product.”  In the age of surveillance capitalism that is inherently true.  Marx contends that a commodity is a thing that is external to us.  But in the age of surveillance capitalism, we ourselves become the commodity and it is our behavioral data, as Zuboff (2019) explains that is for sale.  Yet, because we become the commodity, we also become the thing of value—just as a slave was a thing of value to the owner; the slave’s humanity was utterly dismissed.  The slave was merely an object; the chains of the slave made it a captive.  Today, it is the chains of IoT that make the modern consumer captive to the surveillance capitalists.  Marx also states that commodities cannot go to market and exchange themselves—yet that is exactly what people do in the age of surveillance capitalism.  Since they themselves are the commodities, they exchange themselves for IoT services and do so willingly.  In short, IoT in the age of surveillance capitalism has stood Marx’s view of capitalism on its head.

Surrender of the Will

Marx contends that commodities are things that have no power of their own to resist men who would control them.  Ironically, this thought aligns with what Zuboff (2019) states with regard to the surrender of the individual consumer to surveillance capitalism.  In surrendering of the consumer to the IoT providers, the behavioral data of the person is exchanged and the Internet disappears, as Schmidt states:  the person is given over completely to the Internet.  It is everywhere:  in one’s pocket, in one’s home, in one’s workplace—all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent, and all-capable—a technological divinity that sustains and keeps one in existence.  One surrenders to it.  The only difference between what Marx says about the exchange and what Zuboff says about the exchange is that Marx believes the commodity has no will or power of its own.  Zuboff observes that the consumer does have a will and a power of his own, but that he gives up both by entering into the exchange with the IoT providers.

Who then are the owners in the exchange?  In one dystopian way, the machine-driven learning algorithms are the owners of the behavioral data that the consumer gives up.  Zuboff makes that point in her TED Talk, but it is also there in her book:  the machines that provide connectivity become owners in the sense that they learn to predict the behaviors of the consumer and thus they anticipate the needs and desires of the consumer.  That ability to anticipate plays into the hands of digital marketers, and to the degree that cultivation theory applies in this age of digital mass media the outcome is that the purveyors of the IoT not only predict but also program the behavior of the consumer.  It is like luring a fish with a baited hook:  the initial service is the bait; the IoT is the hook, and once hooked the fish is no longer free; its power and will have been exchanged for the morsel of bait.  Once a freely swimming fish in a pool of water (that it did not see, just as today’s IoT user does not “see” the Internet), the fish is now the commodity to be bought and sold on the open market.  The consumer of today is no different.  When Marx was making his assertions about commodities and exchange, he was referring to things and did not anticipate that people would become the things themselves.  Zuboff shows that they are the things today.

Marx’s short-sightedness perhaps was due to his focus on the labor embodied in commodities, i.e., the cost of a commodity stemming from the amount of labor placed into its development for the market.  But as Zuboff shows, such short-sightedness was not unique to Marx.  Even the Aware Home project envisioned the consumer as one who knows and decides—an end in himself rather than the means to an end.  Surveillance capitalism has inverted that:  the consumer is now the means to an end or the consumer is the commodity once he has surrendered himself to the Internet—the water in which the purveyors of IoT fish with baited hooks.

Consumer as Commodity

Marx notes that a commodity does appear as a slight, trivial thing that is easily understood.  This indeed is the case as the consumer becomes a commodity, thanks to the advances made by machine learning.  Algorithms can now detect patterns in behavior quickly and efficiently to the extent that the routines and habits of human behavior are known and understood more perfectly…and in this manner they submit to surveillance capitalism without another thought.  They ignorantly indulge the surveillance capitalists, surrendering their behavioral data without thinking about what it actually means to surrender this information.  They have no more will or power to resist it because they gladly immerse themselves in the IoT.  If they were in the film The Matrix, they would gladly take the blue pill so as to remain in their virtual world where their every desired is catered to them and fulfilled by surveillance capitalists all too eager to prey upon their desires, habits and behaviors.

In light of Marx’s commodity-exchange theory, when a commodity and more particularly a fictitious commodity like knowledge, is processed into something of value so that consumers are given utility products, the exchange is unavoidable. The information and knowledge should be shared with the users to ensure that their privacy is not at stake; after all, they are the ones from whom the surveillance capitalists are generating profits by using their information from certain platforms. Their clicks, likes, and downloads give companies like Apple a plethora of data from where they know what their consumers want. The factor of ‘use-value’ therefore exists even in the fictitious commodity case, such as knowledge. 

There are also certain limitations to Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism, one might argue. For instance, copyrights and restrictions on digital platforms did not easily access the customers’ data. Even the social media forums also have restrictions that display their ethical code of law, limiting them to share information with other third parties; otherwise, they could be held responsible. A recent example of such a case was when Mark Zuckerberg was held in court to share Facebook users’ information illegally. However, what happened with this case?  Nothing.  Advertisers did not abandon Facebook.  Facebook’s stock price has only risen since its 2018 scandal.  Users are still using Facebook by the millions.  In short, no one really cared.  People know what is happening to them—and it does not matter.  Their will and power are of little concern to them so long as the IoT satiates their every desire—and it more or less does.  They want to remain in the Matrix for as long as they live because it is nice, safe and comfortable there.  Privacy is not a concern to them.  Indeed, social media has already destroyed in their minds the line between public and private.  They see themselves as commodities and gladly embrace that role every time they seek to “brand” themselves or be “branded” by the purveyors of surveillance capitalism

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Zuboff and Marx align in their examinations of commodities and exchange; the reality of the 21st century is, however, that the human being is now the commodity.  The individual hands over will and power to Big Tech because the promises of IoT are all too appealing for him to see this as an exchange by which he loses anything of value or significance.  To him, there is not much difference between slavery and freedom.…

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