Chapter 2 – Setting the stage for Surveillance Capitalism
The Apple Hack
The arrival of the iPod/iTunes combination was a watershed moment in the modern world. Apple inverted capitalism’s 20th century revolution – Mass Production – on its head, and instead opened an era of pure Individual Consumption. They were the first to recognize the strong want of individuals to consume outside of the norms defined by conglomerates, and inserted themselves almost directly between creator and consumer. And that digital turn cut out physical production of an item, along with its packaging, inventory, storage, marketing, transportation, distribution, and physical retailing, all in one go.
The two modernities
Zuboff argues that this model arrived in the early 21st century because humans were ready for it: modernity, starting with the industrial revolution, set forth a process of individualization. “Each life became an open-ended reality to be discovered rather than a certainty to be enacted”, in a self-determining, shackle-breaking metaphor. The first wave of this modernity was incarnated in the increased migrations that happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with an opportunity for individuals to invent new settings for themselves by moving, leaving groups behind, and choosing their own way. But that was still done within very controlled cultural, societal, and familial structures: you could live wherever you wanted, but women were still raising the kids, gay people remained closeted, etc…
The second wave of modernity put the self at the center of each of our own personal universes – an extended individualization. With the mixture of wealth, education, travel, professional opportunities that the industrial world brought about, experiences started varying so much that individuals became more and more unique. And we started questioning all of those norms that had been controlling us up until then. And this brought about the social discussions that the 2nd half of the 1900s saw: civil rights, sexual liberation, voting equality, etc…
The Neoliberal Habitat
At roughly the same time (in the 1970s), the neoliberal economic doctrine rose to the fore across the West: unfettered market forces, left free to create inequality as part of a system that was to be controlled as loosely as possible by governments of supra-national bodies. Competition as the solution to growth, deregulation, privatization, lower taxes, and manager incentives aligned with market share value all rose to prominence. And enabled a destructive and violent system. Neoliberal politics then made sure to weaken the legislative, regulatory, and institutional counter powers that had carefully been built throughout the last 200 years to keep capitalism in check, with Reagan and Thatcher carrying the flag, in the US and the UK respectively. As a result, these countries’ publicly traded firms lost their goal of “profitable production of goods and services”, and replaced it with “shareholder value maximization”. Workers of those large firms, who lost their stable jobs and social benefits, were the main casualties.
The instability of the second modernity
This era saw an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the working class to the wealthy elite (“the rate of return on capital tends to exceed the economic growth” claims French economist Thomas Picketty), The rich kept getting richer, at the expense of a dwindling middle class, which prompted some analysts to announce the arrival of a neofeudalistic society, where fortune depends more on inherited wealth than any self-determination process. The austerity measures that followed the 2007-8 global economic crisis were the straw that broke the camel’s back. 30 years of neoliberal doctrine compounded economic inequality and exclusion, which in turn led to civil unrest: “second-modernity kids”, who were socialized to understand that they have opinions, they are unique, and deserve better (individualization), were hit by an economic reality at odds with this social understanding. “We want to exercise control over our own lives, but everywhere that control is thwarted”, and individuals end up dismissed, invisibilized, and denied dignity.
A third modernity
For a while, the internet seemed to be the medium that would help us onto the path to a third modernity, beyond the economic frustrations highlighted above: online services that enable total personalization, and allow us to mold the (online) world to our own, unique preferences. But online companies soon abused this situation with the use of “Terms of Services” that no user ever reads, negating the egalitarian principle of contracts to effectively coerce users into a legal agreement molded for the benefit of a sole (corporate) party. Because online agreements require close to nothing to manage, update, localize, store, and modify at will, and because users don’t read them anyway, online companies were able to push their luck by engaging internet users into more than they bargained for, and towards an economic model that live sat their expense.
A schumpeterian parenthesis: this evolution of Silicon Valley to go beyond the need of the customer and to instead prioritize the corporation is usually associated with speed and destruction. “Move fast and break things”, or “Ask for forgiveness, not permission” are the tech-bro translation of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” concept, a brand of evolutionary economics theory that claims that capitalism loves economic mutations, sometimes rapid and violent. The basis of Schumpeter’s theory, however, invokes that those mutations are triggered by new consumer needs, not generated out of the blue by an industry. Therefore, the current shift towards a Surveillance Capitalism is not necessarily a “logical, natural evolution of capitalism”, but rather a wilful mutation imposed by Silicon Valley, in its own lab outside of institutional oversight.
Surveillance Capitalism fills the void
Contrary to what the iPod had promised to accomplish, internet companies changed the terms of the contract: ultimate access to information however and whenever users wanted it was framed as requiring the user’s privacy in exchange, if said information was to remain free. Surveillance capitalism spread like wildfire, systematizing the plunder of behavioral data against free information, and facilitating the accumulation of data, and wealth, in the process. This form of capitalism grew unencumbered because people had been reared by millenia to fear governing bodies, not corporations, and because the deal was packaged in a “cool” and useful product that DID provide tremendous value.
The transformation is so profound that the traditional institutional rights that we have to defend ourselves against corporations — monopoly laws, privacy advocacy — are not adapted to “fighting the monster.” “We have yet to invent the politics and new forms of collaborative actions (this century’s equivalent of the social movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that aimed to tether raw capitalism to society) that effectively assert the people’s right to a human future.”
A human future
Surveillance Capitalism is not inevitable, however, and can be fought. The first major blow to it was in 2011, with the “right to be forgotten” battle coming Google’s way, from Spain. Disputing the company’s claim to organize information the way it pleased, according to its “indifferent capitalistic” goals and methods, citizens united to claim their future back. In 2014, the European Union’s Court of Justice sided with them. It was the first major claim that “decisive authority over the digital future rests with the people, their laws, and their democratic institutions.”
This was but the first step, and much is left to do. And a profound understanding of the phenomenon of Surveillance Capitalism is necessary in order to be able to control it. A fine, an operational requirement, or technological oversight are only addressing some of the symptoms, not the real causes. A finer, in-depth examination of Silicon Valley is necessary.