Surveillance Capitalism in Action

My sister started telling me about Amazon’s marketing strategies.

“You say things like ‘Alexa, send me toilet paper! Alexa, send me diapers!’…..”

“Stop!” I screamed. “My phone is on! It will start sending me stuff! I don’t need toilet paper and diapers!”

A Quote from Zuboff

An interesting quote from Surveillance Capitalism:

“IBM “trained” its predictive model by asking the 2,000 users either location-related or product-related questions. The findings showed that personality information predicted the likelihood of responses. People whom the machines rated as moral, trusting, friendly, extroverted, and agreeable tended to respond, compared to low response rates from people rated as cautious and anxious. Many of the characteristics that we try to teach our children and model in our own behavior are simply repurposed as dispossession opportunities for hidden machine processes of rendition. In this new world, paranoia and anxiety function as sources of protection from machine invasion for profit. Must we teach our children to be anxious and suspicious?”

Surveillance Capitalism: Examples

I realize that maybe I don’t give enough examples to make the story that Zuboff tells more vivid.

Imagine asking your best friend over for a cup of coffee and confiding in her that you are worried because your period is 4 days late. Right after the conversation, you start getting ads in your FB feed or in your online searches for prenatal vitamins or baby cribs. It turns out that your Samsung TV that stood quietly in the corner while you chatted with your friend recorded your conversation and sold your worries about a possible pregnancy to advertisers.

Let’s say you are inured to the advertising part of it. I know I am, and it’s a testimony to the effectiveness of surveillance capitalism that I don’t even mind. But here’s a question. Are you sure you want this information to go, say, to your employer? Pregnancy discrimination exists, and you might want to be in control of when this information is shared.

Or imagine you are gay in a region where it’s dangerous to be out of the closet and you confide in somebody. You might not even realize why you lose your job the week after because you’ll believe that there’s no way for your boss to know. It can be very profitable to an employer to be able to get rid of you before you disclose a pregnancy.

Let’s say you confide anything sensitive or secret in a close friend while being in the vicinity of any of these “smart” devices that record without your knowledge. It’s one thing when you simply start getting ads for resort vacations after exclaiming “gosh, I’m so tired of this endless winter!” It’s creepy but it’s not dangerous. But there’s a million ways in which this can get really unpleasant or dangerous to a person.

We are still in the very early stages of this, which is precisely why it makes sense to read and discuss Zuboff’s book. This can still be stopped. There are legislative initiatives undertaken by the still resisting nation-state to stop this. We don’t hear about them because guess who controls our information sources? We are distracted from finding out or concentrating on these crucial, crucial things by ridiculous discussions of Pelosi’s doctored videos or Megan Markle’s inane reaction to Trump’s visit.

We need to start talking about this. We need to start supporting the politicians who engage in real resistance. To my shame, I discovered from this book that I live in the state that offers the strongest resistance so far to Facebook’s facial recognition despoilment. I didn’t even know! But I did know a lot of other utterly irrelevant pseudo-political crap.

I say, let’s talk to people about this. Let’s talk and make this a subject people care about. Let’s talk while our conversations still belong to us.

Smartphone Virgin

N finally decided to get a smartphone. He spent a week researching smartphones online, and then announced that the cheapest one he could find costs $560 on Amazon, and then you have to unblock it and connect it to your carrier.

“There is very little time left!” he fretted. “I need to have it before our trip to Montreal on the 29th!”

“Do you want to get one for free within the hour?” I asked.

After a long struggle to get him to suspend his disbelief, I took him to the AT&T store, and we walked out with a free smartphone. We also got free HBO as a bonus for the purchase.

It’s so funny that N still feels like he’s in Russia and needs to pay for these things.

Rhythm of the Summer

Tombers writes on his blog:

The rhythm of the summer is beginning to reveal itself.

That’s such a great way of putting it. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for somebody to put it this way.

Every summer does have a rhythm of its own. And there doesn’t seem to be much one can do to change it. You just wait for it to be revealed.

What Shortage of Truck Drivers

Klara is ready to tackle the shortage of truck drivers:

This is in front of the church today.

Church is so great, folks. I had no idea. I’m not used to feeling restful on weekends but church really helps. There are older kids eager to play with Klara, there are vats of great coffee, and the food is very good. There is a huge wooded area for kids to play outside and a playroom for when it rains.

Service has been over for an hour but I still don’t feel like leaving. Maybe I should go have a third helping of dessert.

What I Don’t Like in Zuboff’s Book

What I don’t like about Zuboff’s book is the disconnect between the opening pages and the rest. She starts out very strongly with an analysis of how surveillance capitalism helps us feel the way we really want to and we don’t question it in return.

But then she abandons this argument and adopts an easier narrative of how we are being oppressed by evil capitalists but we can change things any time we want.

The problem is that we don’t want. There are brilliant analyses of the evils neoliberalism out there but nary anybody goes in the direction of looking at its enormously seductive and huge benefits. The only person who went in this direction that I know of is Jim McGuigan.

This isn’t a situation of clearly defined victims and victimizers. The people who are most despoiled of their privacy by surveillance capitalism are the winners, not the losers, of the neoliberal economy. Do you know how much the Roomba and the Sleep Mattress cost? How many people in the world even have houses that require a Roomba vacuum or need a bunch of Echo dots for all the rooms?

There’s something more going on here than clear-cut exploitation of poor, victimized billions by a dozen of evildoers at Google. Zuboff has bought into the facile narrative of the 1% of winners against the 99% of equally victimized losers. But the story is a lot more complicated.

Surveillance Capitalism, 14

But the worst thing Zuboff described is the so-called Internet of Things. That shit is creepy, folks.

Did you know that the Sleep Numbers bed’s app records everything you do in the blasted bed, including the audio of your activities in it? The Roomba vacuum not only maps your house and sells the maps to everybody in sight but also now comes with a camera to record everything in your house. And puts it on sale. And the Nest, God, that’s a Frankenstein-level creep show.

The creators of these products have recognized that consumers (or who we think consumers are, namely, us) have no desire for these products. They openly say that the Internet of Things has to be pushed on consumers. The profits don’t come from selling these products to us. The profits come from selling information about us to somebody we don’t know about and from placing bets on our future behavior.

Surveillance Capitalism, 13

One of the most interesting concepts Zuboff introduces is that of the uncontract. It’s best understood through examples.

Car insurance companies are doing trial runs for programs that can monitor your driving behavior and shut down the engine if the software decides you are not driving safely. This already exists. The only obstacle is to get drivers to agree to sign up but that will be easy.

Now, let’s think of the following possibilities. We keep hearing words “safe” and “unsafe.” People need to feel safe. They can be made to feel extremely unsafe by anything, including words. How hard is it to install cameras in a classroom and institute some sort of an automated disciplinary response whenever a professor or a student uses an unsafe word?

How hard is it to get your phone to listen in to what you are saying to your family members and do some sort of an automatic reaction (like sending police to your house) if your language, tone of voice, or the sounds you make sound “unsafe”? How fast will you learn to perform for the benefit of the smart machines in everything you do? I’m guessing, extremely fast.

The result will be to substitute the social contract, where people negotiate relationships and meanings with each other, with the uncontract, where relationships between humans are ruled by an algorithm.

This will all be done in the name of safety. And the groundwork is being laid right now. Have you noticed how often we hear about things or spaces being unsafe? This is a recent thing. And it’s not accidental. This is how we prepare to hand over our agency to smart machines. We are all riling ourselves up to make this process easier. Because it’s too much of a bother to try to resist.

Young Chef

Klara looked critically at her bowl of cauliflower soup, fished out every single Lima bean from the stew I was planning to eat, added it to the soup, plonked a cup of fresh blueberries and raspberries on top, mixed it all up, and devoured the concoction with great gusto.

Apparently, it turned out so delicious that she licked the bowl to avoid wasting a single drop. I’d try it myself if I didn’t detest cauliflower.