Surveillance capitalism: Why we must take back control of our data

World View: Big tech companies are observing our behaviour and profiting from it

“There was a time when you searched Google, but now Google searches you.”

So writes Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It vividly documents and presciently theorises how our lives have been transformed over the last 30 years by the world wide web, now dominated by five huge companies: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. They have created a brand new ecology of data arising from the “behavioural surplus” left over from our individual use of the online services, which they sell on so profitably to advertisers.

Zuboff quotes Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, writing in 2014 about big data: “Because transactions are now computer-mediated we can observe behaviour that was previously unobservable and write contracts on it. This enables transactions that were simply not feasible before”.

Summarising her case, Zuboff notes that Varian’s “we” refers to those with privileged access to the “shadow text” into which these behavioural data flow. “Our behaviour, once unobservable, is declared as free for the taking, theirs to own, and theirs to decide how to use and how to profit from”. Her book relentlessly pursues the answers to the three recurrent questions she poses: “Who knows, who decides, who decides who decides?”


Corporate expertise

Surveillance capitalism answers that the technocratic and corporate expertise embodied in these companies can be trusted with this knowledge; that it works best for users when there is least institutional control over their activities; and that the question of national and international power implied in her third question should be postponed as long as possible.

These questions have now become much more political as users realise their loss of control over privacy, governments respond with varying new controls over platform and publishing rights and the European Union takes the lead in imposing data protection obligations on these companies. Geopolitics enters the fray as they jostle between US, EU and Chinese regulations and controls. Ireland is particularly exposed as a player because several have tax bases and operational headquarters here.

Karl Marx is cited on primitive accumulation by early capitalists of land and natural resources and criticised for determinism

Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the web in March 1989 by creating a user-friendly interface with the internet, now wants to “re-decentralise” it by returning ownership to the users and empowering them to give consent to others to access it. He is pioneering a new social linked data platform company to do that.

Berners-Lee told John Thornhill, technology correspondent of the Financial Times: “We did create all kinds of wonderful things on the web. But looking back at the past few years, we have realised that there has been a lot of dysfunction in society. People are being manipulated to vote against their best interests. The foundations of democracy are threatened.”

Thornhill observes that Google and Facebook are facing increasing demands to moderate billions of pieces of online content in near real time. Such editing involves moral ambiguity, practical complexity, human judgment and cultural context – precisely the problems and skills publishers and journalists bring to bear, however imperfectly. But as Thornhill puts it, “the advertising-driven, monetisation machine that powers the tech giants has been built to strip context from content and reward virality rather than any concept of worth.”

Intellectual origins

Zuboff calls that mechanism “instrumentarian power”. She tracks its intellectual origins to the behavioural psychologist BF Skinner and the contemporary data scientist Alex Pentland, both of whom forsaw the behavioural surpluses rendered free by individuals to the tech giants.

The other key intellectual influence is from neoliberal thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman – with whom she studied in Chicago before spending her career at Harvard as a sociologist in its business school. They foresaw a new market rationality often echoed in the vacuous libertarianism espoused by Google and Facebook executives to justify the trade of information between individual users and these firms.

Zuboff draws on a long tradition of social, philosophical and political critique in mounting her case that this appropriation of behavioural surplus represents a dispossession and disempowerment of individuals. Thomas Paine is invoked against Edmund Burke on aristocratic rule to criticise the tech leaders’ arrogance. Karl Marx is cited on primitive accumulation by early capitalists of land and natural resources and criticised for determinism; but his distinction between use and exchange value of commodities could have been used more to illuminate the unequal contracts involved.

Above all George Orwell and Hannah Arendt are drawn on to resist this new totalitarianism of information control. It must be retrieved by popular and government regulation, she affirms, in a passionate defence of individual freedoms.