It is probably THE most important book of the last decade. Its author, Shoshana Zuboff, has already been hailed as ‘the new Karl Marx’. And for good reason. In her work ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ she rips into Google, Facebook and others and calls them out for their outrageous behaviour and business models. Zuboff opened my eyes and gave me the final push to leave Facebook. Will she open yours as well?
(length: around 2,400 words, reading time around 15 minutes and worth every second of it!)
Three years ago I was doing a freelance gig for a creative agency. We were working on a new campaign for a fitness brand. The guys from an ad agency told us they had software with which they could scan all the apps installed on a smartphone, without the user even knowing. And based on that information they could present targeted ads.
What annoyed me most from that meeting was the fact my colleagues didn’t even ask the question whether we should even WANT to use that data or should even collect it. ‘How did we get here?’, I thought. Around 2008 Google had a new location service called Latitude and in those days at least sent users a privacy reminder every month. In 2020 geo-tracking is the default mode. Lots of people don’t even know that: go to Google Maps on your Android device and click in the menu on Your Timeline. And don’t show your partner if you have something to hide…
History of advertising
This unlimited data gathering for advertising purposes should not be a surprise. Tim Wu explained it very well in his book The Attention Merchants, where he gives an overview of the history of advertising: they will not stop before they have entered every part of your life.
But with the advent of especially Google and later Facebook something has profoundly changed. That is why Zuboff calls this development ‘Surveillance Capitalism’: the unfettered collection of personal data that will be sold to commercial parties wanting to sell you something.
With every ‘innovation’ the modus operandi is the same: these companies start to grab your data without asking your permission (and/or having you sign these ridiculous 80-pages long Terms of Service, another crime in itself). They then wait and see how the reception is (remember the scandal around the cars for Google Street View grabbing data from wifi networks?). They then deny, adjust their policy a bit if needed, and then move on to the next land grab.
The justifications are always the same. These services are ‘free’ so giving your data is a good deal. We give you great personalized adverts in return. Or another classic: what do you have to hide?
Calling out the bullshit
These are the masters of obfuscation at work and Zuboff calls out the bullshit. What do we have to hide? That is giving US a feeling of guilt. But, dear Google, there is still a thing called privacy. There are areas where we want to not be tracked, our safe havens. Let’s reverse the question: what do YOU have to hide, Google?
A lot, of course. Apart from the fact that lots of data about users is being collected without their knowledge, the algorithms that decide which ads and content you get on Facebook and which search results and ads on Google, are company secrets. Mind you: these computers can decide elections, but there is no governmental or consumer oversight. ‘Innovation needs freedom. We move too quick and legislation would slow us down. Don’t be evil. Trust us.’
Bollocks of course, the bullshit bingo of Silicon Valley. This kind of innovation isn’t inevitable. Just like austerity isn’t inevitable (but a political choice), Surveillance Capitalism is a deliberate choice. Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page et al have a plan. And they can be stopped, if we decide to.
Stages of development
To do that, you first need to know what you are dealing with. Zuboff (a professor at Harvard) shows the bigger stages of development. It started in a healthy way, where Google collected our search data and in exchange we got better search results. But then they started to scan our mails, follow us around the web with trackers, collected our browser data and much more.
At this point ‘free’ wasn’t justification enough anymore: we were losing our privacy and our free will, as Google and its customers (mainly companies and political parties that wanted to advertise) started to determine and influence what we saw. We used to get our music tips from trusted friends and journalists, remember? Now Spotify determines that (and look at your Weekly Playlist to see that it is hit and miss, and some record companies obviously buy their spot in that list as well). We are even starting to adapt our natural language to machines and their formulas: we just call it Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and everybody is just guessing, because no one outside Google knows the ingredients of their secret sauce.
In this first stage (she calls it ‘the foundations’, I prefer ‘the digital conquest’) these companies were also lucky with two big developments: on one side the rise and rise of neoliberalism, the cancer of society that has been increasing equality in society in the last four decades, which calls for minimal government intervention and regulations. And at the same time the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which ignited an unrestrained hunt for every byte of digital data available.
In the second stage Surveillance Capitalism inserted itself into real life, not only digital products. Pokemon Go is a great example: the game originates in the US military (a company called Keyhole), an enterprise that was bought by Google for its geo-tracking capabilities and rebranded Niantic under the Alphabet company umbrella. TAnd this start-up built Pokemon Go for Nintendo and invaded the world.
But the real business model wasn’t the gaming itself. It was hiding in plain view. Google was not only collecting loads of valuable location data, but also selling the placement of Pokemons to restaurants, bars and shops. They were the puppet masters pulling the strings. And the players were the puppets, without them knowing.
As innocent as that may seem, the current third stage of internet everywhere can have more long-lasting consequences. We got the home invasion (Google Nest, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana), the ear invasion (Microsoft airbuds, Apple AirPod, Google Earpods, etc). Next: health wearables. Who will buy Fitbit or Jawbone and get your health data?
New deal on data
Of course none of this is new. In 2007 I already wrote about the endless possibilities of location tracking, in the age where I was still naively positive about this emerging technology. In 2017 I talked about the New Deal On Data, and was starting to ask the question who should own our data (answer: we, and not a commercial enterprise).
But those were the wrong questions, Zuboff asks the right ones (and this is going to be a looong list):
- Is it even desirable that someone tracks my location?
- Would we be fine if we would enter a physical store where someone was following us all the time and would send targeted messages by mail to our home afterwards, based on our behavior?
- Is it normal that someone lets my friends know to which concerts and events I go?
- Is it abuse of monopoly when ONE company has my mail, website analytics, documents and video subscriptions on YouTube? And my digital social life (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) is owned by a second company?
- Should we laugh or cry that the iRobot smart vacuum cleaner scans and sells your floor plans (not making that one up)?
- And is it good that universities are losing a generation of data scientists because they choose the big money of the big companies to work on Artificial Intelligence?
- Is it a great idea to develop smart skin that measures our medical data around the clock?
- Do we need intelligent toys kids can speak to???
- Can we consider it normal that we give our fingerprints to a company to unlock our phones?
Hard to escape
The answer in all cases is of course NO. Although some ideas in itself aren’t bad (the massive usage of health apps for example is also a symptom of a health sector moving way too slow), the main problem is that our data is being collected everywhere. It is harder and harder to escape that net. It is almost impossible to find out which data is out there about you. And it is even more impossible to know what is being done by that data by whom.
What is a fact though is that this behavioral data is worth a massive amount of money. For good reason of course, because it is predicting our behavior at such a granular level that this software knows us better than we know ourselves. It is almost unprecedented in our history.
Apart from the fact that… it is NOT unprecedented. Zuboff writes about government-funded research into behavioral modification in the 70s in America. There was a public outcry, and the result was the Common Rule: it said that experiments with humans were only allowed if the subjects were informed beforehand. No more pulling the strings in secrecy.
In those days we could only imagine that states would try to gather such data and perform such experiments. So there was no prohibition for companies. So what is happening now? Google and Facebook and others are continuously running experiments to influence our behavior (the Like button is a good example, A/B-testing in general is as well). We as users don’t know we are the guinea pigs. And there is no public outcry, although these experiments are even more far-reaching and scandalous than those in the 70s.
Outrageous amounts of money
Yes, you have almost made it to the end of this article / summary. The entire book was 1040 pages on my iPad by the way, but it is worth every second.
Because I learned as a kid already: if someone all of a sudden is making shitloads of money, something is probably wrong. Facebook and Google are making outrageous amounts of money. So what is wrong?
It is of course partly about monopoly. Another essential part of the story is that the data itself is often invisible and the algorithms behind it even more. And we know even less how these surveillance capitalists are trying to influence our lives and our behaviour. Though when you ask yourself questions like ‘when did I last check my smartphone’ and ‘when did I last use a dating app’, you get a hint of how you are being nudged and directed towards compulsive behaviour.
But in the third and last part of her book, where Zuboff becomes almost philosophical, she also sees another worrying consequence. The threatening rise of facial recognition software is only the latest frontier of the war on our privacy (reading the part about the FACS scheme, with standards for facial expression and how to recognize them, is truly scary). But even without facial recognition we have been losing our safe spaces. Our sanctuaries.
A place like home, where we can just dream and think and talk and draw uninterrupted and without any outside influences. A place like school, where there was always social pressure to behave in a certain way but you were at least growing up with real people. Nowadays teenagers grow up carefully cultivating an online image that can deviate rom reality. It distorts their chances of learning social interactions and finding their own personality and thus becoming mature. They suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), caused by growing pressure and leading to anxiety and other disorders.
Mark Zuckerberg may have decided unilaterally in 2010 already that ‘Facebook users don’t expect privacy anymore’. But that is just another example of a surveillance capitalist presenting something as ‘inevitable’ that is actually an outrageous infringement of our sacred space. And another example of a morally completely bankrupt and rotten CEO.
What to do about all this? Zuboff draws a comparison with the industrial revolution. Initially this also led to tensions between the owners of factories and the workers. But after employees organized into unions and protests started, there was a realignment of mutual interests by introducing better working conditions and more salary. And with more money the factories also created new customers for their products.
That was a new social contract. That contract has been broken by neoliberals from the eighties onwards. And by any means it ignored the destruction of the planet by industrialization, so it had been imperfect from the start.
A social contract has also been broken by surveillance capitalists. Data was taken FROM us is not being given back TO us anymore (but to advertisers). Only a very small amount of people (the owners of Google, Facebook etc and their relatively small army of employees) have gotten insanely rich whilst the other ones are worse off now.
There is a remedy though, Zuboff thinks. Protest. Demand change. Stop giving your data to these companies where possible, squeezing the lifeblood for their operations. I started to move away from Facebook entities (only my Instagram account will survive for now) and have also set upon the impossible task of erasing the past fifteen years of data on Google domains. No, you don’t have to do the same. But at least think about whether the current situation is healthy or not. Oh, and Amazon: stay the fuck out of my fridge! 🙂
Does a movement need a pamphlet of demands? Or is it enough to just demand change? Difficult to say, Zuboff doesn’t has an answer to that as well.
We both agree though that the GDPR privacy regulations by the EU, imposed in 2018, are not nearly enough. Therefore here is a completely personal suggestion of demands to get our privacy back and stop tracking completely:
no cookies at all (except for shopping carts), no ad and behavioral trackers at all
default privacy option set to max: everything else is opt-in (preferences registered in a central database if possible, like the DNS-system)
abandon the GDPR warnings (see first two points)
ANY data submitted by users may only be used for improvement of service on that specific site (so Instagram can’t use Facebook data for ad targeting)
one-click option to see data gathered on you and one-click option to delete it as well
declare all terms of service non-valid by default
no custom pixels and other tracking technologies on websites and apps
prohibition of single sign-on options through 3rd party services (google connect, facebook sign-in, etc)
end-to-end encryption of all sites (no need for VPN)
Suggestions and opinions of course welcome, I am definitely not an expert on the specific technologies.