By Chet Yarbrough
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
By: Shoshana Zuboff
Narrated by Nicol Zanazrella
Shoshana Zuboff (American author, former Harvard Professor of Business Administration).
Shoshana Zuboff analyzes the evolution of power wielded and enabled by Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other media giant’s that invade personal privacy.
In the October 17-18, 2020 WSJ, the headline is Mark Zuckerberg is “Washington’s New Power Broker”. Reporters Deepa Seetharaman and Emily Glazer note that “…Mark Zuckerberg now takes an active role in the platform’s policy decisions–and checks in regularly with officials like Jared Kushner”.
Zuboff’s scholarly examination of American internet mavens concludes “…Surveillance Capitalism” will lead to Orwell’s “1984” or B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”.
Orwell notes in “1984” that invasion of privacy is a way of conditioning human beings to believe in “truths” manufactured by whoever leads. In contrast, B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” argues behavioral observation and reward is a tool for making people live morally “good” and peaceful lives.
The words “truths” and “good” are in quotes because they are determined by what Zuboff calls “the big other”. “The big other” is a knowledge leviathan that knows everything about everyone.
In Orwell’s world, humans will be managed by a totalitarian government. The government monitors all private and public actions of its citizens. These governments have a set of propagandized “truths” that demand and compel obedience. Orwell’s world relies on knowledge of every detail of its citizen’s life. When a citizen’s actions do not conform to government rules, they are psychologically bombarded, and re-programmed to believe.
In Skinner’s world, individual citizens will act as they think they want, as though they have free will. However, operant conditioners (“the big other”) will reward citizens for fulfilling desires of respective employers, vendors, and governments which are holders of private information. These operant conditioners will use personal and private data to offer rewards for “good” behavior. (Zuboff calls these holders of private information “the big other”.)
Orwell and Skinner offer views of a future where privacy no longer exists. Orwell’s view is obviously dystopian. Skinner’s view is utopian, hiding in the skin of dystopia. Zuboff explains how either future is conceivable in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. Her conclusion finds both futures reprehensible and possibly inevitable.
“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” exposes America and the world to the greatest economic and social change since the industrial revolution. In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” every human action is catalogued, distributed, and utilized by entities interested in influencing human’ thought and action.
“The big other” is enabled by media giants to seduce the public into buying technical products that are connected to the world wide web. Products, like Nest, Google Search, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Quick Books, etc. record everything humans do and see, with extraordinary insight into what they think. That data base becomes a tool for modifying behavior without conscious knowledge of its users.
Is the government’s suit against Google important? Shoshanna Zuboff implies it is monumentally important.
In Skinner’s view, freedom and dignity are a fiction. To Skinner, only behavior is currency for future peace and prosperity. That behavior can be conditioned by “the big other” in Skinner’s world.
In one sense, Skinner’s recognition of positive reinforcement’s value to society is exemplified by moguls like Henry Ford. Ford’s recognition of the value of raising wages for his workers (an operant conditioning reward) increases production and lowers product price.
Zuboff systematically builds her argument with the history of industrialization and the dramatic change it brought to society. Ford grew his fortune by positive reinforcement of worker’s higher wages and the public’s consumption of a lower cost product that revolutionized travel.
The credibility and threat of Zuboff’s argument is reinforced by George Bush’s accelerated invasion of privacy after 9/11, and Barack Obama’s use of technology from Google’s Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO, at the time) in his run for election.
One might also argue the rise of Donald Trump is a harbinger of the threat of “…Surveillance Capitalism”. Evidence suggests Trump’s election campaign drew on Russian surveillance of Hillary Clinton and political research from Cambridge Analytica to win election.
Cambridge Analytica provided detailed information on voters who agreed with the anti-science convictions of Donald Trump. They voted, and Trump won the election.
(As noted in Wikipedia.org–Analytica is a visual software package developed by Lumina Decision Systems for creating, analyzing and communicating quantitative decision models.)
Zuboff argues the principle of positive reinforcement takes a giant leap forward with the technology of “Capitalist Surveillance. Henry Ford’s personal insight is replaced by “the big other”. Potentially, every capitalist or government entity now has access to the details of everyone’s lives.
In a capitalist country, there is no singular controller but a multitude of public and private entities that manipulate human life like Skinner’s pigeons in a cage.
In a communist or fascist country personal surveillance easily slips into Orwell’s “1984”. Zuboff offers the example of the social categorization of Chinese residents by President Xi’s government. Assigning a number to a Chinese citizen capsulizes their support or opposition to communism. That number influences every aspect of that citizen’s success or failure in China.
Zuboff warns that tools for predicting future behavior are in the hands of “the big other”. Zuboff speaks from her personal experience with Skinner. Skinner was one of Zuboff’s professors during her college days. She infers today’s surveillance economies bend toward totalitarianism borne by behavioral reinforcement.
A fundamental question is: Do we have free will? Or as Skinner and Alex Pentland suggest are we just vessels for behavioral modification?
The other side of “Surveillance Capitalism” is the benefit offered to the general public by data compilation. There is a leveling of cost for consumer items because of pricing and consumer criticism gathered and distributed to the general public when buying a product or service. There is a value in being able to arrive at a destination on time without worrying about getting lost in the country or city. There is the ability to control utility use, and guard one’s house by using tech products like Google’s Nest. There is the potential of producing more product at cheaper price because of “Surveillance Capitalism”. The idea is similar to the way Ford grew his automobile company by rewarding employee behavior and producing lower priced product.
The question remains—what price are humans willing to pay for convenience?
The industrial revolution just as the technological revolution changed society. It seems fair to say the American standard of living has increased as a result of industrialization. Is there reason to believe the same may be true with a technological revolution that makes life easier but less private?
Zuboff questions the trade off but so did the Luddites when they destroyed machines that replaced craftsman. One cannot take Zuboff’s scholarly study lightly, but the genies of the tech revolution are out of the bottle.
If there is a such thing as free will, there seems no harm or foul. However, manipulating human behavior belies Google’s founder’s unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil”. (Interestingly, in April or May of 2018, Google abandoned the slogan.)