The increasing influence of technology in every aspect of human life has many people worried. One person tracking the impact of technology in our daily lives is Shoshana Zuboff. In 1988, Zuboff wrote a book called The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, which looked at how computerization would affect businesses and work culture. Now, she has released her new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which looks into how the mix of digitization and capitalism is giving rise to “surveillance capitalism.”
“I define surveillance capitalism as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets — business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later. It was Google that first learned how to capture surplus behavioral data, more than what they needed for services, and used it to compute prediction products that they could sell to their business customers,” Zuboff said to The Harvard Gazette.
Google’s ability to collect a wide range of metrics about a user gives it incredible power to influence their opinions. In the beginning, Google’s customer tracking features allowed businesses to target a specific group of people and advertise their products to them. This targeted advertising ability led to an increase in business profits. In this initial phase of surveillance capitalism, Google only monitored users and allowed businesses to advertise to them based on their searches. So if someone was searching for “black shoes,” then a shoe company could display their products in the search results.
But today, we are in the second phase where Google uses data to influence people’s behavior. For instance, by tracking a person’s search terms over a long period of time, Google is capable of determining their shopping behavior. If a user has a tendency to splurge a week before Christmas, Google’s data can allow businesses to target them with highly discounted products so that they buy even more. If a specific user seems to be searching for products from Brand X, then Brand Y can tailor their advertisements to such users so as to influence them to purchase their products instead.
Essentially, Google has moved on from being a company that just sells advertisements to a company that seeks to change user behavior to suit its business interests. In turn, people are unconsciously making choices by coming under the influence of behavior-targeted ads. This is not isolated to Google. Tech companies — like Facebook, Amazon, Pinterest, Twitter, and so on — are collecting massive amounts of user data in a bid to influence public purchase decisions.
Future course of action
As to the future course of action, Zuboff believes that the public has to be proactive in demanding that their online behavioral data is not exploited by companies. “The individual alone cannot shoulder the burden of justice… any more than an individual worker in the first years of the twentieth century could bear the burden of fighting for fair wages and working conditions… A century ago, workers organized for collective action and ultimately tipped the scales of power… today’s ‘users’ will have to mobilize in new ways,” she writes in her book (The Nation).
A dangerous evolution of surveillance capitalism would be surveillance governance where the state collects public data and seeks to influence citizens by analyzing behavior, setting up a system of rewards and punishments in the process. Nowhere is this more evident than in China where the Communist Party has set up the world’s largest surveillance network.
Millions of cameras constantly monitor citizen movements, while online censorship tools keep track of dissidents who speak out against government atrocities. The Chinese state has also implemented a social credit system where people’s past behaviors are tracked to determine the “privileges” they can have. In one instance, a student was apparently denied admission to a university because his father had a bad social credit score.