On the misbegotten phrase “surveillance capitalism”
The loaded phrase surveillance capitalism has been in circulation since at least 2014, but it came into much wider use this year with Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The phrase means the system of extremely widespread surveillance by giant private corporations, entailing the systematic invasion of our privacy as well as control and abuse of our personal data.
I am opposed to the phenomenon that the phrase names, but I also am opposed to the phrase itself. How so? As I’ve made amply clear in this blog, I think we should care much more about privacy, and indeed we should be hardcore about it. Moreover, the best defense we have against incursions on our privacy by Big Tech is to decentralize social media (and other data, too, come to think of it) and to embrace data self-ownership.
The problem with the misbegotten name “surveillance capitalism” is that it implies that it is because of capitalism that we currently live under a regime of surveillance through social media (as well as financial, medical, and other data). This is nonsense. Indeed, it should be obvious why it is nonsense. But I enjoy explaining obvious things, and sadly it sometimes seems necessary. So here goes.
It isn’t capitalism per se that is responsible for our massive surveillance. The Internet was capitalistic in 1999 but did not feature 2019 levels of surveillance. We could still institute new decentralized systems of data exchange that would make what Zuboff is pleased to call “surveillance capitalism” much more difficult. Moreover, massively intrusive surveillance can be expected to happen, and actually does happen, under socialism, as it does in China.
The reason we live under a regime of massive surveillance is not economic or political but technological: blame it on the cloud. Because we need to sync data on our various devices, and between large networks of people, our data came to be put in the cloud. Though they could have been, different networks were not made interoperable, so that you and I could take exclusive control of our data if we wanted to. Instead, each of the Big Tech giants—Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—came to have its own internal data standards which allowed it to operate its own walled garden, insulated from the others and from smaller competitors. The economic system of capitalism is, quite simply, governments permitting free markets to operate with comparatively little regulation. The presence of such a system is not enough to explain why we found ourselves with such proprietary standards and walled gardens.
If you are still not convinced, then imagine, if you will, that the Democratic left took control and converted America to the sort of government-controlled economy so many democratic socialists want with increasing desperation. That would not make it more likely that we would adopt a system of neutral, open standards. Why would it? Data standards and our economic systems certainly seem to have little to do with each other. Indeed, a socialist economy would be much more likely to impose various kinds of surveillance and top-down control. After all, such control is essentially what “market socialism” is all about. In the market socialist economies that the American and European left hanker after, giant governments and massive corporations would naturally work together to surveil the populace via the social media panopticon. Not for nothing has the Western left-wing commentariat backpedaled on their original expressions of horror at Chinese social credit system. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, some are saying.
And that, of course, would be surveillance socialism.
By contrast, the adoption of common, open standards that would allow us to own and serve our own data without fear of interference by massive authorities, corporate or governmental, would essentially be an individualist, pro-liberty system, much as the Internet itself was and to some extent still is.
The irony is rich indeed when giant institutions like Facebook and Twitter are led by avowed progressives but, because they are corporations, it is capitalism that is blamed for their immoral power-grab. At best it could be blamed on corporatism. What’s the difference, you ask? Capitalism is defined by and highlights the freedom of economic interactions. But, you ask, wasn’t it corporate freedom that allowed Big Tech to take control? Not really; not necessarily. Corporate freedom greatly underdetermines why our privacy has come to be systematically violated in 2019. In other words, it’s not enough to explain the problem. Corporatism, by contrast, involves the wielding of power by giant corporations; by now, it is clear that it was the desire to shore up their power, economic power to be sure but also ultimately their political power, that motivated Big Tech to make our data into their private fiefdoms. So the more apt term is, surely, surveillance corporatism.
Indeed, it is only a free market system that could be counted on to support and guarantee any future possibility of privacy, or freedom from surveillance. If enough of us are left free to build network of decentralized social media, decentralized (and properly encrypted) cloud storage, and encrypted communication, then how will it be possible for us to be monitored, except with our very clear acquiescence (as when we write public blog posts)? If we join together in decentralized networks, it will be impossible for us to be subjected to the same sort of surveillance. Well, it will be impossible if we are left alone.
But governments could require that we make our data capable of being monitored. Those politicians and bureaucrats who have insisted on having (probably unworkable) government back doors for encryption fall into this camp. The problem is that progressives and socialists ultimately want to regulate (if not collectively own) pretty much everything. But to do that, they need to surveil everything; they certainly can’t permit conversations and economic transactions going on out of earshot.
So let’s call such a system of government-sponsored regulation, indeed, surveillance socialism and possibly surveillance corporatism. Unlike “surveillance capitalism,” those really would be apt sobriquets, because it would be the essentially socialist demand for regulation or collective ownership that would require our data to be left open to government surveillance—and indeed, perhaps also to corporate surveillance by the wealthy friends of politicians. Such chummy back-scratching is, after all, how market socialism, or corporatism, works.