Chapter 12 – Two Species of Power
A Return to the Unprecedented
Zuboff starts off this part of the book by defining Instrumentarianism: “the instrumentation and instrumentalization of behavior for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetization, and control.” She then posits that society, including critics of Surveillance Capitalism, does not know even how to name and describe this new, unprecedented form of power. In much the same way that early 20th century folks used the lens of Imperialism to try to analyze totalitarianism, we are now trying to judge and fight Instrumentarianism using our “old world” vocabulary and ideas. After all, cars were often originally described as “horseless carriage.” So the first step in trying to fight the beast is to name and describe it, which will be the main focus of this chapter and the next. And that includes describing what it is not.
Totalitarianism as a New Species of Power
Zuboff starts her examination of Totalitarianism by highlighting that both a philosopher like Gentile (who participated in shaping the Italian fascist thought) and Stalin were exhorting their literary classes to refashion, or engineer the souls of the people in a new, single, total unit of power: the totalitarian movement (rather than the state) would vye to destroy individuals’ relationships and ties to others in order to garner total loyalty, and get men to commit the most horrible atrocities. Western publics were not ready to analyze this new form of power until after the second world war. In fact, Zuboff recalls that Stalin made the cover of Time magazine 11 times through the 30s and 40s, and found celebratory articles about his rule in Russia as late as August 1939, written by authors “blinded by an ideological allegiance to the idea of a socialist state.” Also, it seems well documented that proof of the atrocities committed by the Russian regime were well hidden while they were happening, and only started appearing to credule observers post-facto.
The facts of that period were so truly “impossible” to comprehend by minds that were not equipped to face their enormity. Ahead of scholars of the time was a difficult road of analyzing, understanding, naming of what was to be known as “totalitarianism.” Aarendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” was the first key analysis of this new power, but many followed. And they partially focused on the domination of the human soul by the dominant class, the creation of excluded out-groups, the total and intimate control of individuals’ will and freedom.
An Opposite Horizon
Whereas totalitarianism feeds off violence, domination of the soul, and general control over what we do, Instrumentarianism takes another approach: it wants whatever we do to be accessible to its operations of rendition, modification, monetization, etc… but could care less about what it is that we do. And its point of origin is far from the murder and destruction of totalitarianism; rather, Zuboff places this point of origin in the labs of experts of a discipline called “radical behaviorism,” which will now be explored.
Enter B.F. Skinner to the stage. Starting in the 1940s, he and his students developed and refined methods of behavioral controls over lab animals, concepts with names such as “schedule of reinforcement” or “operant conditioning.” Quickly, he believed in and preached behaviorism: applying these types of conditioning techniques to humans and to the world at large, outside of his lab, in order to save civilization from its own free will and from final destruction. Basing his theories on the work of a forgotten physical theorist, he pushed the idea that humans could be studied by psychology as “other ones,” or organisms that are simply a bit more complex than bacteria or lab rats. Furthermore, he thought that human freedom was to psychology what accidents were to physics: something we can’t really fully explain, and should work around in order to explain and organize the world. Therefore, there should be a shift in perspective from “the human being as a soul” to “the human being as an organism”: no need for searching for knowledge, since it leads to loss of freedom. (a rather far-fetched and complex set of ideas).
Continuing to develop those ideas, Skinner drove home the main concept: freedom is ignorance. Analyzing human behavior as just another organism, which does not want to know more than it does. From here, it logically goes that any action regarded as an expression of free will is simply one for which the “vortex of stimuli” that produced it can not yet be adequately specified.
A Technology of Human Behavior
The next logical conclusion that Skinner gets to is that to counter ignorance, “we need a technology of behavior.” Behavior would be effectively predicted and shaped in order to reduce uncertainty and lack of knowledge: a predictable and shaped behavior means that there is no more place for ignorance. And if that meant that humans would need to forego such antiquated notions as free will, or agency, then so be it!
In practice, he turned his attention and efforts towards devices that would force outcomes, like gambling devices, or towards business mechanisms that would encourage (or nudge) certain outcomes, like bonus payments associated with certain behaviors. To alleviate the concerns over privacy which were emitted by opponents to his methods, Skinner replied that the subjects of the conditioning should be in as little contact with the scientists, even unaware of the whole thing! Privacy would ultimately disappear, just like freedom, unnecessary in the face of full knowledge of the world.
Zuboff now opposes totalitarianism and instrumentarianism through two books that embody each concept respectively: 1984, by George Orwell, and Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner. In 1984, Big Brother wants to annihilate all free will, all thought, all contrarian ideas, and is ready to control every single aspect of people’s lives in the process. Walden Two is different in the fact that it describes a society that alienates individuals not through violence and control, but rather through complete dehumanization and destruction of any thoughts that make an individual more than an organism. Violence against behavioral engineering, or two sides of the same coin: a new species of power. And the species of power imagined by Skinner seems to be very close to surveillance capitalism’s aims and techniques.