Watch This Space: Surveillance Capitalism Special – Labour Article
Capitalist exploitation is back in vogue folks! This time it not only comes in industrial grey but black, white, green, purple, yellow and red. That’s right, surveillance capitalism has extended the frontier of exploitation into your very own pockets.
As we all should know, online data is collected on us almost constantly and sold to advertisers seeking to influence us. But the depth and detail of this data, as well as the startlingly accurate conclusions data analysis can provide, is gravely underestimated.
Moreover, thanks to the increasing ubiquity of the ‘internet of things’, the privacy of our offline lives also falls prey to companies’ designs to extract more information about us. Even our hoovers map our homes with radical indifference to our objections, rights and interests.
The unprecedented scale and power of companies like Google and Microsoft that drive this process ensures that almost all aspects of our lives are violated for others’ profit. To top it all off, this is almost always done without our explicit consent. Starting to see the exploitation?
This systemic digital dispossession and exploitation of human data is best articulated by Professor Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Marxist (breathe here, Tories) theories of surplus-value are reimagined to conceptualize the behavioural surplus of data extraction, the raw material of surveillance capitalism and basis of a new means of production.
Data can be harvested benevolently as part of a virtuous cycle of technological improvements, sure. But the term behavioural surplus refers to the ‘behavioural data available for uses beyond service improvement’, and it’s this disinterested surplus value that forms the basis of all surveillance capitalist wealth.
Surveillance capitalists such as Google scrape your every move for data. They analyse them and use them to create ‘prediction products’. These are exquisitely attuned consumer profiles that permit advertisers and businesses to target your insecurities and private sensibilities. All this in order to extract wealth.
It gets worse. The hunt for more and more accurate prediction products inevitably leads to behavioural manipulation. The only way to perfectly predict what a person will do without fail is, after all, to make them do it yourself.
Let’s take, for instance, the phenomenon of Pokémon GO in 2016. Developed by Niantic Labs under the eye of former vice-president of Google Maps and boss of Street View, John Hanke, Pokémon GO’s business model is nothing short of terrifying.
As well as in-app purchases, Niantic labs earned money for generating business owners footfall. By making certain paying partners, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, desirable in-app locations, the company was able to direct players into these stores and guarantee increased sales. Yes, the owners of Pokémon GO actually earned money by manipulating and herding players into shops to spend money without their knowledge.
Most people just don’t care, however. On some level, we all already know this. But we are willing to trade our right to privacy and our right to free will for others’ profit for the sake of convenience and ease.
However, we sign up for this, you may argue. It’s our own choice, you might say. But in reality, our use of services is rarely, if ever, fully informed. Even then, the need for our explicit consent is bypassed by obfuscation and bad faith practices. Indeed, in 2008 it was found that a reasonable reading of all terms and conditions that one encounters in a year would take 76 working days!
Moreover, as the world becomes more dependent on smart technologies, not only does the power and scale of surveillance exploitation grow, the cost of freedom increases. Opting out of your own exploitation becomes more and more exclusionary as technology and apps form the basis of a greater share of human life.
What to do then? It’s one thing to name the beast, but quite another to tame it.
Much like the answer to industrial capitalism’s inhumanity was collective action and regulation, so too with surveillance capitalism. The 2016 European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), enshrining citizens’ rights to erasure and imposing stricter privacy guidelines on private data companies, is an example of a step in the right direction but can only be the beginning.
Individual measures do little to challenge the structural exploitation of surveillance capitalism. Some surveillance capitalist companies are more powerful than states and move fast; much faster than regulatory bodies. If we are to have hope, multi-national regulatory and legislative bodies need to move faster too.
Surveillance capitalism at heart rests on dependency and imbalances of knowledge and power. It is this imbalance that enables them to impose a ‘fundamentally illegitimate choice’ on us; the power to say lump it or leave it. If we don’t act now, how could we possibly respond when the cost of leaving it becomes too high?
Written by Junior Labour Writer, Marco Dryburgh
Point of Information
“If It’s Free, You’re the Product” — A Conservative Response
We may differ in our support or disdain for capitalism, but on this issue, I think Marco is spot on. This is a colossal problem, borne of the difference in pace between innovator and regulator (as Marco noted). A top quality explanation of the terrifying problem we face, there is no need for me to parrot his work. Better to focus on where we disagree.
A solution to this problem in but a few hundred words is nigh-on impossible. However, I find Marco’s solution to ‘the government’ and ‘regulation’ to be flimsy at best. This almost parental view of government, I find to be quite odd. Especially given the fact that even democratic governments spy heavily on their citizens; dare I need to say the words, “Patriot Act”.
Furthermore, governments — especially democracies — with their lumber and squabbling, will never keep pace with private companies. I do not find the same solace in regulation as Marco. Even if legislation was passed (a tough ask given the presence of lobbyists), any fine print would be worked around.
This is our problem. We cannot pawn off the solution.
Instead of regulation, you play the ‘surveillance capitalists’ at their own game: the profit one. The only way to rid ourselves of these vampiric voyeurs is to vote with our dollar. Use search engines that prioritise privacy; buy phones that do the same. My support for capitalism stems from one word: choice. Although it would be going upstream, we could opt-out.
However, my outlook is a pessimistic one. The convenience of gadgetry and potency of the dopamine rush will glue technology to our homes and hands forevermore. Enough people know, but not enough care.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Alexander Dennis
We need education, but we can’t rely on our government – A Liberal Response
I completely agree with Marco’s article. It has shed some much-needed light on the depth and breadth of the issue. I believe many of us are ignorant, or at least unwilling to acknowledge the insidious nature of the perpetual data mining we’ve been forced to be complicit with.
When data surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable resource, the scale of mass surveillance, and thus the degree of real profit and influence that can be gained, can be no longer ignored.
However, unlike issues of environmentalism and voting apathy, there are no small actions people can do to make themselves feel they are helping (even if the real solutions lie in big government action and TNCs taking urgent action). This has led to this begrudging pessimism towards the erosion of our right to privacy.
Nevertheless, as technology is increasingly playing a larger role in our lives, using our education systems to teach how these companies behave, and the legal protections you have over your data, may, in the long term, lead to more effective international protection.
A part of me suspects it may be too late to rely on international governmental organisations to provide us with the protection we’re owed. Especially when they objectively benefit from the capitalist exploitation of surveillance.
Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Lucy Severn
I’m a third-year History and Arabic student at the University of Manchester, and have just returned to London after an abortive year abroad learning Arabic in Jordan (thanks, Covid). Travelling and living abroad in a country and culture as different to ours as Jordan’s is without the obligatory reflection of your own values and priorities is impossible.
Hello, I’m Alexander Dennis, and I am going into my third undergraduate year at the University of Exeter. I study Politics & International Relations, with a possible year abroad hanging in the balance. My particular interest in politics really started in early 2016: yes, it was ‘Brexit’. I was at once intrigued, and confused, by something so critical. From that baptism, I have become somewhat addicted to political discussion, intrigued by issues ranging from drugs policy to taxation. So I followed my nose: I applied for a degree in the subject.