Chapter 6 – Hijacked: the Division of Learning in Society
The Google Declarations
Zuboff starts this chapter by rewinding back to the Spanish conquests of the New World, where the system of declarations was a well-oiled machine: the Spaniards would declare themselves righteous owners of the new lands and would impose vassality to indigenous tribes, by reading to them a series of rights and obligations. Of course, this was in a language they could not comprehend, and was related to rights that they believed were inalienable. This whole system put everyone (indigenous people as much as other nations back in Europe) in front of a new reality that the Spanish willed into existence: Spain now owned the new lands, and that was a fact! Zuboff then lists 6 original “declarations” that Google & co. announced when they started to collect behavioral surplus data, essentially starting an “age of conquest.”
Zuboff digs into her expertise of the world of work and automation, describing the following equations: the division of labor that was pervasive at work since the industrial revolution has been followed by the division of learning, prompted by the introduction of “smart machines” in factories and offices. Text became central to work, and workers had to deal with that text. Zuboff describes 3 levels of that division of learning: knowledge (who knows?), authority (who decides?), and power (who decides who decides?). This equation led to “job polarization” when governments have not strongly invested in education.
Now Zuboff posits that with the extension of surveillance capitalism, our whole lives are mediated by machines, not only the world of work. And we are now learning how to deal with this division of learning. Knowledge, authority and power are being contested all around us because all of our behavioral data are being collected and processed for capitalistic gains.
Surveillance Capital and the Two Texts
Edison and Durkheim had theorized how the division of labor seeped out of the world of work to become pervasive in society in general. Now Zuboff claims that the division of learning is following in the same steps, as it goes beyond economic interests, and gets into establishing the basis for our social order and its moral content. Key to this social order is the problem of the two texts: the first text is the visible one, which we all create and consume (blog, videos, photos, music, stories, etc…). And then there is the second text, or shadow text, which is all of the behavioral surplus data extracted from all of our actions. We willingly or unwillingly contribute to create that shadow text, but do not have access to it, nor can we analyze it ourselves, despite the fact that it can say more about who we are, individually and as a people, than the first text ever could. This way, the guardians of surveillance capitalism can control what the answers are for the three questions above: who knows, who decides, and who decides who decides… Themselves.
The New Priesthood
The world now produces more information than it can analyze, most of it digital. The companies that own the massive computational power needed to make sense of the data (data centers, ML infrastructure, etc…) are the ones that are de facto in a position to do something about it. They are full-stack AI companies: they use their own data to train their own algorithms using their own chips that are deployed on their own clouds. This trend is further accelerated by scientific advances such as Google’s TPUs, and by the global concentration of AI talent into those few companies. “The division of learning in societies shades towards the pathological, captured by a narrow priesthood of privately employed computational specialists, their privately owned machines, and the economic interests for whose sake they learn,” and other private companies, governments, and civil society members are excluded from the chain.
The Privatization of the division of learning in society
This takeover of the division of learning has been done without taking into consideration what was good for the People, as it is surrendered to private interests. As early as the 1980s, Spiros Simitis tells us that “No privacy is possible”, and Paul Schwartz ups the ante, declaring that human autonomy itself is at risk. These fears are similar to the ones that surfaced when division of labor came around 100 years before. And a particularly interesting image used by Zuboff goes like this: asking surveillance capitalists to respect users’ privacy is like asking Henry Ford to build the model T by hand. So the accumulation of behavioral surplus led to the isolation of knowledge, and therefore of power, outside of any democratic process or of the reach of courts and governmental offices.
The Power of the Unprecedented: a Review
Contrary to the previous century’s fight, which was fought away from general society, in factories, between industrial capital and labor, this century’s fight will be between each and everyone of us and the surveillance capitalists, and it will be fought in all aspects of our lives. And so far, we’re off to a bad start, after having been ambushed by a threat that we had never experienced (much like the aborigines when the conquistadors arrived). And the tools we have used so far (privacy rights and monopoly challenges) have been toothless, because they don’t address the underlying mechanisms of the dispossession cycle. Even graver yet: surveillance capitalism is progressing in the “real” world, beyond its original digital milieu. This expansion will be at the heart of this book’s second section.