Chapter 17Intro and table of contents

Conclusion   –   A Coup From Above

Freedom and Knowledge

Capitalists have always claimed that they need freedom: from regulators, and freedom to innovate and launch new ideas. The main reason was that markets are intrinsically unknowable: if the market is unpredictable, economic agents should be able to freely behave and go in all the directions they would like to explore, in order for some of those agents to meet their market, while some others might not. You get freedom for ignorance. But the balance becomes completely skewed when some economic agents are able to know the outcomes, thanks to their behavioral data extraction and modification machines: the markets are now eminently knowable, at least to some. And Zuboff argues that Surveillance Capitalists know too much to qualify for freedom.

After Reciprocity

Capitalism was also built on a reciprocity where employees were also the customers of a company, as theorized by Adam Smith. While Shareholder value maximization already eroded that reciprocity, surveillance capitalism rushed into the cracks and expanded the fracture. First, people are no longer consumers: they are turned into raw material. Second, people are no longer employees either: surveillance capitalists employ relatively very few people compared to similar juggernauts of the previous century. 

This is interesting to Zuboff, as she highlights the historical relationship between reciprocal capitalism and democracy. When the people of the American colonies felt that they were not engaged in a reciprocal economic relationship with Britain, they took matters into their own hands. The act of non-consumption of imported British goods was a brilliantly original strategy of consumer resistance to political oppression, and it worked a couple of times in the decade before 1776, when the democratic process evolved under this search for reciprocity between the people and power. Surveillance capitalists seek to extract themselves from this need of reciprocity, by an approach Zuboff calls “radical indifference.”

The New Collectivism and Its Masters of Radical Indifference

Surveillance capitalism, because it requires all humans to be fully integrated to the hive, is a collectivism, which departs from the historical leanings of capitalism and neoliberalism. Because of the sacred metric of “Growth” in this form of organization of business and society, surveillance capitalists build not the best products, but the products that will be used by most! If in the process much bad as good happens to people, so be it. Unless, of course, bad content produced on the platforms puts the data extraction model at risk, either through user disengagement in the face of abuse or other negative experiences or through more regulatory scrutiny.

Radical indifference also puts the platforms in a place where they render all content, for the unique sake of growth and volume, without any control. For example, journalistic content and any other forms of content are put at the same level of legitimacy, for the sake of engagement (doing so facilitates the spread of fake news). Another area is the allowing of ads for dangerous products, very much unchecked (fraudulent mortgage operators, pharmacy companies advising users to import regulated drugs…). Any attempts at getting in-depth information on how the platforms regulate this content through their internal guidelines and policies, and with content moderation best practices, are met with silence. Zuboff evaluates that the thresholds for removing content are indexed on the most amount of tolerance users will have before they leave the platform.

Around 2017, it seemed that the only way for those platforms to recognize their faults in the area of abusive content was for advertisers to boycott their advertising operations, hitting them directly in the purse – although only half-hearted efforts ensued, mostly to try to curb the negative press. Because why would they go against the major feature of surveillance capitalism: ever-expanding volumes of content, users, and behavioral data to be collected!

What is Surveillance Capitalism?

Surveillance Capitalism must be reckoned as a profoundly antidemocratic social force. It is a coup from above that annexes human experience and privatizes the central principle of “social ordering.” Reusing a formula from Hannah Arendt, Zuboff compares surveillance capitalists to tyrants, a tyrant being a “ruler who rules one against all, and the ‘all’ he oppresses are all equal, namely equally powerless.” There is no opposition, as an equivalent to environmental law, labor law, or banking law has not yet come into effect. And this time, the aim is not to dominate nature, but rather human nature. And all of it is wrapped up in a myth of inevitability: “there is no other way!”

Surveillance Capitalism and Democracy

Democratic societies are vulnerable to unprecedented power. And in recent years, Western democracies have been even weaker than before, with withering attachment of individuals to the very concept of advanced democracy as the most desirable form of government: only 40% of Americans see democracy as the only desirable form of government. At the same time, there is growing unease about the current society that people live in, and in the common future. Zuboff links potential feelings of isolation, insignificance and loneliness to the rise of totalitarian regimes in the 1930s, and explains that such a fertile situation could explain why Big Other developed so much. 

But zuboff trusts in the power of democracy, flawed as it can be, to protect us from surveillance capitalism. She echoes Tomas Picketty’s words: “if we are to regain control of capital, we must bet everything on democracy…” Functioning, strong democratic institutions will be humans’ main tool to control the beast.

Be the Friction

Beyond changing democratic systems and laws, Zuboff argues that you have to change public opinion: legislative and judicial action invariably reflect the public opinion of twenty to thirty years earlier, used to believe Milton Friedman. So she turns to young people, to explain to them that the system that they have grown up in, under surveillance capitalism, is not OK. She exhorts them to indignation and to the rejection of inevitability, and, to quote Orwell, she wishes all to reject “the instinct to bow down before the conqueror, to accept the existing trend as irresistible.” All must break the spell of enthrallment, helplessness, resignation and numbing.

So she asks all to be the friction in the system, to create the synthetic declarations that claim the digital future as a human place, to break the silence, and to declare: no more!

Chapter 17Intro and table of contents