Chapter 11 – The Right to the Future Tense
I Will to Will
Zuboff examines what will is, using Hannah Aarendt’s work on will as the “organ of the future,” much like memory is the “organ of the past.” She coalesces centuries of moral philosophy into the idea that the ability to make a promise is what gives us the ability to impact our future, using our own freedom of will. According to Zuboff, we have reached a time when the elemental freedom of will is under attack from behavior modifications willed by surveillance capitalists, and therefore, we should now fight for our right to the Future Tense.
We Will to Will
The will to make promises about the future was formalized through “contracts” between individuals, starting under the Roman Empire. Contracts enable groups of people to enact certainty and predicted outcomes in the midst of an uncertain world. However, the uncontract proposed by surveillance capitalism and resulting in behavioral modifications is the exact opposite of that: it imposes unilateral power. The uncontract transforms the human, legal, and economic risks of contracts into plans constructed, monitored, and maintained by private firms for the sake of guaranteed outcomes. It renders our collective action obsolete: we don’t enact the future we want through millennial techniques anymore (such as dialogue, problem solving, and empathy), rather machines do it for us without bothering themselves with such antiquated and non-optimal concepts. The human work of building and replenishing social trust is now seen as unnecessary friction, in a world where we have certain outcomes.
How Did They Get Away With it?
When informed about internet companies’ data collection practices, a very wide majority of people are likely to be concerned about their privacy or to reject tracking: between 2008 and 2017, only 2 major surveys out of 48 counted by Hoofnagle and King found the opposite. So why are we all happily feeding the system? Zuboff lists 16 reasons for this state of affairs: historical context, dependency on the services (both users and businesses), ignorance of users, velocity of the players (“speed as violence”), and many more. And she reiterates that antitrust and privacy laws have not been (and will not be) effective in breaking up the new model of capitalism that she described in the previous 10 chapters.
Rather, she posits that we have to willfully withdraw our agreement to the initial declarations of surveillance capitalism, to reject the model itself. Much like, she continues, we once rejected the declarations of raw industrial capitalists, by for example banning child labor, enabling worker unionization, etc… She foresees two main methods: one is a series of counter-declarations, whereby we need to regain control over access to our behavioral data. The other is a synthetic declaration, to propose another reality that breaks up the existing system.
Polanyi made a prophecy that, unchecked, industrial capitalism would destroy nature, which it had claimed to conquer. We see where this is taking us today, in the midst of human-accelerated Climate Change. Zuboff then asks what would happen to human experience, similarly claimed and conquered by surveillance capitalists, if surveillance capitalism went unchecked… Even beyond this thought, industrial capitalism had a strong and long-term impact on our very modes of coexistence — the impact on culture, society and work has been immense. What will happen now with Surveillance Capitalism, and how do we make sure we control how our own selves will change? This will be explored in the third part of the book.