How to handle a bully like Surveillance Capitalism —

Part 9 unpacking Shoshana Zuboff’s very important New York Times Editorial

Surveillance capitalism, by its very nature, is unable to play nicely with our Republic. At this moment, we still have a Republic and we have some democratic norms. For argument’s sake, let’s say we’d like to keep them. So, what to do?

Zuboff pleads we not focus downstream “…on arguments about data, …privacy, accessibility, transparency and portability, or on schemes to buy our acquiescence with (minimal) payments for data.” Down there is where we get into back-alley brawls about content moderation and filter bubbles. It’s where we wag our fingers at the likes of Mark Zuckerberg but change nothing about the state and security of our Republic. Focusing downstream continues the bankrolling of what may become the largest concentration of wealth in the history of the nation.

By focusing on those downstream issues, we buy the premise forwarded by the titans of surveillance capitalism that they are allowed to steal our information, our feelings and sell them to the highest bidder. We should reject that premise because their property claim is illegitimate.

Let’s also acknowledge that it is their business model that has created the significant and serious harms to the functioning of our democracy.

Right, so what to do? Zuboff wants three things:

First: Go upstream to supply and end the data collection operations of commercial surveillance.

Second: Data can no longer be the means of information warfare waged on the innocent.

Third: Disrupt the financial incentives that reward surveillance economics.

Let’s unpack that a bit. We will need legal frameworks that interrupt and outlaw the massive scale extraction of human experience.

“We need laws that tie data collection to fundamental rights and data use to public service.” If a social media company gets to keep that data about us, it better be doing us some demonstrable good.

This is a slippery space. What’s good? I like some aspects of data collection. For example, I like that the ride sharing companies know that in my town, on the last weekend in June demand for rides goes way, way up. I want them to be prepared for that spike. They have to have some data collection and storage to be able to offer me a useful product. I’m cool with that. But how does it help me that Pinterest or Facebook knows where I am and what I’m doing all the time? I don’t think the ‘so we can serve you better ads’ argument justifies going with me everywhere. It definitely doesn’t justify trying to cleave me into whatever rabbit holes will keep me active on their site.

There’s a middle path and I’m not certain the blunt instrument of the law alone will find it.

Surveillance Capitalism is not too big to fail. Zuboff points out that we outlawed trade in human organs and babies even though they were profitable. We outlawed markets that traded in humans even when they supported whole economies.

Justice Brandeis wrote that “we may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” Zuboff agrees saying that statement was true in, “…the old economy that we knew and the new economy that knows us.”

If we do not challenge the fundamental economics and operations of commercial surveillance these businesses will continue to weaken and eventually transform democracy itself. We still have the opportunity to build a mature information civilization that will support and strengthen our democratic values. To paraphrase Justice Brandeis, it is ours to use or lose.

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