🔒 Your data is the new world currency

LONDON — We are all starting to slowly wake up to the fact that the minute detail of our daily lives that we share when we google, post our pictures on Instagram and Facebook are monitored, turned into big data and sold on to target specific advertisement to our tastes. We may think it is just a bit of fun, but it becomes quite a different matter when it can be used to up your premiums for medical insurance or when you find advertisements next to your profile that reveals information that you did not want to share. In a new book, THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, Shoshana Zuboff claims that the digital era has been hijacked with specific commercial goals in mind and it is aimed at changing our behaviour. She speaks to Bloomberg’s Lisa Abramowicz and Paul Sweeney. – Linda van Tilburg

Surveillance capitalism is a very specific logic of capitalism that differs from what we’ve seen in the past and while it began in the big internet companies, first Google, then Facebook, and then the tech sector. It is now spreading across the normal economy into literally every economic sector. So, we’re talking about something that is becoming the dominant form of capitalism in our time. It has very specific consequences for individuals and for democracy, consequences that are in their own way violent and destructive and that’s what drove me to spend seven-years working on this book.

So, let me go back and define surveillance capitalism, if I may, just quite briefly, and then we can look at some examples. It has long been understood that capitalism evolves by taking things that exist outside the marketplace. Bringing them into the market dynamic so that they can be sold as commodities and purchased. Industrial capitalism claim nature for the market dynamically  reborn as real estate, as land that could be sold and purchased. In the case of surveillance capitalism, it seems to emulate this pattern, but it does so with a dark and unexpected twist.

Surveillance capital goes after ‘the last virgin wood’ to turn into commodities and it turn out that this last virgin wood is our private human experience. It unilaterally claims our experience as a free source of raw material to be transferred into behavioural data, which are then shunted into its manufacturing processes, which we call artificial intelligence (AI), machine intelligence and from those black boxes are produced surveillance capitalism’s products. These products are actually predictions of our future behaviour. Predictions of what we will do now, soon, and later.

It turns out there’re a lot of businesses who are interested in knowing our futures and these businesses constitute new prediction markets where these new production products are sold to businesses who have an interest in knowing what we’re about to do. This logic that I’ve just described to you was first invested in the context of online targeted advertising and the bit of future behaviour that was being predicted is what the folks call ‘click through rates’ and the business customers who came into these markets to get on ‘click through rates’ are people that we call advertisers, specifically online advertisers.

What they did was they gave up all of the old premises of advertising in order to buy into Google’s black box, and Google’s black box said, we’re not going to let you know what is the data that goes into the box, or what are the computations we make. It’s going to spit out a result and if you put your ad down where it tells you to, you will make a lot of money and indeed, that is exactly what happened. The final point on this is that while surveillance capitalism originated in this context of online targeted advertising, it is no more confined to that context, we have learned, than let’s say mass production is confined to the original production of Ford Model-T’s, back in the early 20th Century.

So, I guess then the question becomes would people use this data and the sort of predictive power that it has when paired with AI and machine learning to manipulate behaviours aside from, ‘buy my product?’ How do you see that being born out?

That brings to the heart of the economic imperatives. That may sound like a bit of jargon but the idea here is that once you understand that this is an economic logic.  It’s not the same as digital technology. This economic logic requires digital technology to express itself but we can easily imagine digital technology without surveillance capitalism. We can and we have and I can give you examples of that but at this point what we see is surveillance capitalism is the puppet master. The digital technology is simply the puppet.  So, we have this hijacking of the digital for these specific commercial goals and within this logic the longer I’ve studied it and the more I’ve come to understand there are very specific and predictable economic imperatives that’s part of the logic.

As they follow these economic imperatives, where do the economic imperatives come from…? They come from competition. What are they competing over…? There’re competing over who has the best predictions. How do you get the best predictions…? First of all, you must have a lot of a data so, that’s imperative number one – you need scale, you need volume. All right, they’re competing on volume. New competitive demands arise. We need not only a lot of data, we need different kinds of data, varied data so, we need scale and we need scope – we’re competing. New competitive demands arise then they discover that the very best the choices predictive data comes from actually being able to intervene in this state of play. Intervene in your behaviour to subtly and outside of your awareness, shape, and herd, and tune your behaviour towards their commercial outcomes.

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