Surveillance Capitalism: making socialism and libertarianism obsolete?

Big Tech controls the one-way mirror

Philosophy exposes unspoken axioms; digs them up so that we can look at them in the bright sunlight. Models based on industrial capitalism, the unspoken axiom that this is how economics operates, are outmoded. Over. And just as I made up my mind to focus on healing my anguished soul, The Intercept uploaded a video explaining that surveillance capitalism was the new reality. It ruined my breakfast. The speaker, Shoshana Zuboff, has just published a book on the subject, describing it as the latest form of capitalism.

Capitalism, in all its forms, takes something outside a market, which is then modified in some way so that it can be brought into the market as a commodity to sell and buy. Industrial capitalism has taken nature and work, and has brought them into the dictates of the marketplace. Seems obvious. Nature and work are resources, inputs. Smith, Marx, Hayek, Mises, Keynes, and all the other canonical economic thinkers have assumed industrial capitalism.

I ordered Ms. Zuboff’s book from Amazon. I get a dollar reward for no rush shipping. It is entitled, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I am looking forward to devouring this book. Soothing the soul may have to be placed on hold. In a February 24, 2019 article in the Intelligencer, Zuboff states that the basic pattern of capitalism is still the same. But now, what is outside the market, and being brought into the market, is “private human experience.” Just as land and labor were once free and outside the marketplace, now raw human experience, which we thought of as free, is being brought into the markets of this new form of capitalism. Instead of factories transforming oil into plastic garbage bags or soda bottles, Big Tech transforms our experience into behavioral data. The data is then used to produce predictions of human behavior.

For those of you who saw the movie Brexit, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the campaign to leave the European Union hinged on behavioral data provided by Cambridge Analytica, or a similar company. Brexiters won. Zuboff states that these companies use the data along with a “five factor personality” model that can make very “fine-grain predictions.” They can tell. for example, “if you’re gay, or if you’re likely to vote alt-right.” One detail that got me was that it’s not really the data that is useful, it’s the metadata. For example, from the data they collect, they can see whether you tend to use ellipses in your writing. From the use of ellipses they can determine that you are uncertain or don’t like to finish things! Multiply that by billions of people, and billions of traits!

Post 9/11 the idea of total surveillance is not new. What is new is the idea that it has replaced industrial capitalism. It will take a while to digest. To my socialist and libertarian friends, I can’t yet trace out all the implications. My instinct tells me that a new class system will emerge, the Tech oligarchs, and the serfs who serve up the data. What can socialists do? Or libertarians for that matter?


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