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.

15 thoughts on “Surveillance Capitalism: Examples

  1. In addition to a few politicians showing concern for human rights such as privacy, are workers in a state security apparatus not warning of the potential threat to security? What about espionage or soldiers’ technology revealing state secrets to all and sundry?


  2. I am glad you’ve been discussing this book. It’s one of the better ones I’ve read recently. I haven’t discussed it much on my own blog due to lack of time to write anything that does it justice.


  3. I confess that I have a quasi-resigned attitude to this. Or more precisely, I don’t think in terms of simply trying to avoid a world in which there will be entities with superhuman knowledge of, and power over, all human beings. That future has been our destiny ever since computers were invented. The only hope I see is the philosophy of ‘friendly artificial intelligence’, i.e. trying to identify, and ‘implement’, a human-friendly value system for AI, so that we can have a beneficial coexistence even when AI is beyond human control or understanding.

    But this is a philosophy that really only suits transhumanists and other apocalyptic technofuturists who are used to the idea that a purely human existence is going to be replaced by something else. For people who simply don’t want to go there, I will say that resistance is possible, albeit difficult since computer software and hardware is everywhere. But it will require an aggressively luddite strategy. The data centers need to be physically destroyed, or controlled only by people who will not permit them to be used for monitoring and control of populations. And it’s very late in the day, for a strategy like that to obtain traction.


    1. Absolutely, this is precisely why this whole idiotic idea of transhumanism is so aggressively peddled. And many people buy into it as something liberating.


    2. mitchellporter, may be it’s my lack of imagination, but I simply cannot believe in independent AI ruling humanity as it wishes. Do you think Zuckerbergs, Chinese governments and CIAs will let any money and power evade their grasp? 🙂 The “entities with superhuman knowledge of, and power over, all human beings” won’t be robots but the future elites using new abilities to control the rest of the population. You can judge for yourself whether they have “a human-friendly value system.” 🙂

      As for luddite strategies, they are a waste of time, a partition of straw put in front of a tsunami. We need to find a way to build normal lives despite data centers as part of a new culture. For instance, if a woman is fired since tech spying made her employer know of her possible pregnancy, new laws should be capable of protecting her rights. Using personal, not criminal info to destroy social standing should make the spying enemy an outcast himself. New laws, limitations of technological power and new social norms will be created. The question is when and after which damage.


      1. The problem is that people being spied on and manipulated are not aware of it. Even if such laws existed, the woman in question has no idea she’s being spied on, so she wouldn’t seek recourse.


  4. Sometimes I swear I’ve just thought about something, without even verbalizing it or googling anything, and an ad for that thing will show up in my facebook sidebar.


  5. Getting an ad for a tropical resort when you’re cold isn’t merely mildly unnerving and harmless, mind. Having your needs and wants anticipated is precisely what the draw of the tech is. Except for the people who like their universe spiky (or, perhaps, even for those), being surrounded by the soothing and familiar is still worth the mild off-chance that the information they’re feeding in may make it go terribly for them one day.


    1. That’s exactly what Zuboff says. Personalization is the bait that lures the wounded snowflakes. They’ll give everything for this luring, cocooning feeling of being sheltered, in a womb-like way, from anything that is not completely smooth and spike-free.

      In short, they want to feel like infants. Lifelong infants. They are completely controlled but soothed and comforted all the time. The lure here is endless infancy.


      1. Right! But apart from this narrative of seeing huge swathes of the population as infants – which I’m partial to because I love self-aggrandizing – I’m having difficulty seeing the smoothing as an evil in itself.

        After all, I don’t remember an occasion when someone’s installed a spike in my life and I’ve been thankful for it.


        1. Our reaction to spikes, our capacity to create narratives that explain them, and the ways we find to overcome them is what makes us human. Without all this, we are just digestive apparatuses.


          1. // Our reaction to spikes, our capacity to create narratives that explain them, and the ways we find to overcome them is what makes us human.

            Don’t we already have enough spikes in our lives? I do not think people become addicts, depressed because of unemployment and feeling declassed, etc. since the universe is not spiky enough. The huge transformations going on and new developments coming soon, such as self-driving buses, will make more people unemployed.

            Technology is incapable of providing a “completely smooth and spike-free” life; it can only help a little sometimes.


            1. By the way, the ridiculously high usage of anti-depressants and the opioid epidemic are happening in the country with the highest level of consumer comfort on the planet by far. And these are the same people who are lining up to give away their privacy, agency, right to solitude and interiority to make shopping easier. It’s not desperation that is making people accept this.


  6. // The problem is that people being spied on and manipulated are not aware of it. Even if such laws existed, the woman in question has no idea she’s being spied on, so she wouldn’t seek recourse.

    Well, we live in what Pratchett called in his fantasy novels “interesting times.” Of course, people don’t adjust to tech revolutions overnight. The goal is to bring this info to the masses. The moment people understand their salary depends on being aware, they’ll make effort to become aware. New laws and warnings like the ones on alcohol should help them.

    Btw, just read an interesting quote шотландского писателя Иэна Бэнкса:

    “На самом деле русские создали свой вариант капитализма по образцу тех картин западной жизни, которые рисовала советская пропаганда. Им внушали, что Запад — это разгул преступности, поголовная коррупция, неприкрытая страсть к наживе, многомиллионный бесправный класс голодающих и кучка злобных, алчных мошенников-капиталистов, попирающих закон. Конечно, даже в самые трудные времена Запад и отдаленно не напоминал такую картину, но русские построили у себя именно этот вариант”.



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