Surveillance Capitalism, 6

Here is Zuboff’s definition of surveillance capitalism:

Surveillance capitalism… is the foundational framework for a surveillance-based economic order: a surveillance economy.

What does this mean?

We are no longer the subjects of value realization. Nor are we, as some have insisted, the “product” of Google’s sales. Instead, we are the objects from which raw materials are extracted and expropriated.

In short, what industrial capitalism did with physical nature, surveillance capitalism did with human nature.

What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Well, think about the impact of the industrial revolution on physical nature.

As Zuboff says,

The essence of the exploitation here is the rendering of our lives as behavioral data for the sake of others’ improved control of us.

Control and, obviously, modification.

I have to run to class now but tell me, does anybody need page numbers for the quotes? I can provide them if necessary.

Surveillance Capitalism, 5

We keep hearing that privacy is eroded as a result of the digital revolution. Zuboff ayas, however, that “privacy is not eroded but redistributed.” We don’t know how Google and Facebook operate. They have privacy because they have the means to keep their operations private. Moreover, they have an opportunity to take over our privacy and make it theirs. Privacy still exists and it’s bigger than ever. It just doesn’t exist for us because it’s something that can be mined for profit by others.

Zuboff offers a great analysis of the language games played to conceal the redistribution of privacy. To give a single example,

The word “targeted” is another euphemism. It evokes notions of precision, efficiency, and competence. Who would guess that targeting conceals a new political equation in which Google’s concentrations of computational power brush aside users’ decision rights as easily as King Kong might shoo away an ant, all accomplished offstage where no one can see?

Of course, “targeted” also evokes military operations, which is closer in meaning to what the tech giants do.

Ukrainian Diet

In the ten days that Ukrainian relatives have been staying with us and cooking up a storm, N gained 9 lbs. I’m more used to the Ukrainian diet, so I only gained two. They’ll be here for another week, so we’ll see what the final result is. I promised N I’ll starve him after they leave.

We’ll be visiting them next month, though, so I’ll have to starve him pretty badly.

Surveillance Capitalism, 4

I searched for my favorite turquoise eyeliner by Stila on Amazon and didn’t find it. But since then I can’t go on FB without seeing huge ads for Stila cluttering my feed.

Everybody just shrugged their shoulders and yawned because it’s such a boring, mundane story. Shoshana Zuboff says in Surveillance Capitalism that we don’t care about this sort of thing because we have grown completely numb to it. As a result of this numbness, there is no violation of privacy we wouldn’t shrug off.

Also, she says, what’s happening with the birth of surveillance capitalism is so unprecedented that we are failing to process it using familiar ways of thinking. It’s very hard for human beings to accept the existence of something completely new. Our brains automatically look for soothing patterns from the past. “This is just like something I already heard about” is the curse of humanity. It’s a mechanism humans use to protect their brain from the trauma of accepting new evidence. And then we simply shut down our brains and get numb to the radical newness of what’s happening.

Zuboff says that we urgently need to start thinking about the new phase of capitalism in new ways. We have to make our brains catch up with the change. If we don’t, we won’t have much left by way of brains. We already have a generation that is physically incapable of reading a book start to finish. This shit is eating our humanity while we just sit there numbly and repeat that “it’s just like XYZ and so no big deal.”

Unusual Challenge, Day 27

Today we are going to the midnight Πάσχα procession. We’ll circle the church with candles and holy icons (which are big in the Orthodox faith).

And then everybody will gather for a huge meal at 2 am. I’m not really into the meal because I got cured of nighttime munchies a long time ago. But I’m very excited about the nighttime procession with crosses and icons is something I really look forward to. I’ve never done anything like this, so it’s really unusual. I feel like I have a historical memory of doing this kind of thing.

Surveillance Capitalism, 3

Capitalism perceived a huge opportunity in this resentment. People feel brushed aside, unimportant. Their unique individuality is not recognized in all its glory. So let’s feed this need and make it pay, right?

You know how people accept any indignity from their smartphones or gadgets in the name of “convenience”? And it’s not really all that convenient. The app model that is now everywhere is extremely inconvenient. It’s limiting, it’s deeply frustrating.

Zuboff says that the reason people accept the lack of privacy, the inconvenience and the soft totalitarianism of modern tech is that it feeds the desire to experience the unique individuality that is no longer supported by the economy and politics. The likes, the followings, the feeling that you are heard and noticed, the idea that every cup of coffee you drink is so special that it merits being photographed and posted on Instagram – this is what feeds the feeling of individual importance that people have grown addicted to.

So basically, instead of the nation or community you get Facebook.

I’m not sure I buy this argument in its entirety but I’m waiting to see how Zuboff develops it.

Surveillance Capitalism, 2

The industrial stage of capitalism wrecked the climate, Zuboff points out. We are only now realizing what industrialization is costing us. What we aren’t realizing yet is that the new stage of capitalism, the one she calls surveillance capitalism, “will thrive at the expense of human nature and will threaten to cost us our humanity.”

Zuboff works within the framework of two stages of modernity proposed by Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck. This obviously attracts me a lot because, as we all know, this is my framework, too. But she’s not simply repeating what they said. Instead, Zuboff – whose ancestors are from Ukraine, by the way – puts a very interesting spin on this idea.

The first stage of modernity (or solid capitalism, as Bauman calls it) created the idea of an individual who can and must build his or her own self following the dictates of personal choice. We no longer have to live the destiny handed to us by our group, clan, family, religion, or tradition. This is very liberating but also very lonely, scary, and confusing.

But here is the problem. This sense of individuality brings with it a belief in every person’s dignity and importance and makes people feel entitled to a good life and freedom to be oneself. Somebody needs to protect the dignified individuals from forces larger than their own selves. Somebody needs to cushion them from the harsh blows of fate because how do you preserve that sense of dignity otherwise?

In the first stage of modernity that somebody existed. In the second stage, it started disappearing. And the wanting, desiring, self-aware individuals were left completely alone.

So people get upset. They perceive themselves as being worthy of a good life. They feel entitled to good living conditions simply because they are unique, wonderful individuals. But the social contract within which state institutions looked out for their welfare is falling apart. They no longer have a community to turn to because it was sacrificed to the idea of everybody’s unique individuality.

And so the resentment grew.

Word and Image

In the beginning was the Word, right?

When I tell Klara stories – which happens many times a day – I can see her eyes glaze over because she is imagining what I’m telling her. Her brain transforms words into images. This is how a human brain becomes a human brain.

There is nothing more human than the word. Human identity is a narrative. Consciousness of the past and the future is a narrative. Turning words into images and connecting to the world through narratives is what makes us human.

If you skip the word and get a ready-made image (through YouTube videos, cartoons, etc), this enormously important capacity to create images out of words with the power of your brain is thwarted. The creative work of building images out of words is outsourced. It’s placed outside of your self. The very self-building capacity is placed outside of you. Your control over it is severely constrained.

None of this is from Zuboff’s book. This is all mine, so please don’t ask for links.

Surveillance Capitalism, 1

Folks, I’m starting to read Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism. It’s over 700 pages, so this will take a while. You know how I read theory. I read a bit, annotate, then think about it, then write. My apologies to those who aren’t interested in the book because there will be many posts on it and this will last probably for months. Escape while you can!

So here goes.

We are used to defining economic systems by who has control over the means of production. Capitalists in capitalism; the government in socialism.

But this definition is growing outdated because owning the means of production is not the greatest source of capital and power any more. There’s something far more profitable and powerful:

As long as surveillance capitalism and its behavioral futures markets are allowed to thrive, ownership of the new means of behavioral modification eclipses ownership of the means of production as the fountainhead of capitalist wealth and power in the twenty-first century.

The new concept here is “behavioral futures markets” but it’s not confusing once you get into it. Tech companies know so much about us that they can predict our behavior. It’s especially easy for them because they can manipulate behavior. So “behavioral futures markets” are a way for these companies to place bets on our future behavior. Zuboff says this is the future of capitalism and not the unwieldy, solid means of production.

Byung-Chul Han said everyone is his or her own means of production. And Zuboff points out that we all together are somebody else’s means of production because our behavior is more manipulatable, and hence bettable, than ever. Think about my earlier posts today about technology in the classroom. That’s what this is about.