The Surveillance Exception. That time we drunk dialed Surveillance and invited them to move in.
Part 3 of many unpacking Shoshana Zuboff’s important NYTimes editorial
After 9/11 the government needed information about us, all of us, and to get it they leaned on private companies to collect and generate that data. After all, private companies can do things we don’t want the government to do at all. And we the people might need that information someday, in a courtroom or to support the existence of an undisclosed location in a country less squeamish about torture than we like to think we are. In the name of making a safer world, we issued licenses to steal the record of humanity.
In a fearful era, we made surveillance exceptional, meaning we made it exceptionally important, more important than other things like democratic norms or the right to privacy. Zuboff writes, “…that the United States and many other democracies chose surveillance over democracy as the guiding principle of social order.” The argument went that we had to surveil everyone because our safety and our very survival depended on it.
This new social order hurt democratic governments’ ability to maintain the trust of their people, which in turn increased the government’s perceived need to surveil.
Meanwhile, young internet companies saw a bright, shiny opportunity. Shucks if all this surveillance is going on anyway, let’s make some money from it. They would collect data too. They would steal human experience and render as their own to sell for profit and eventually, extraordinary power.
These mostly young, mostly white, and almost entirely male entrepreneurs operated free from any democratic mandate. They woke up with a windfall of information and the totally unaccountable amounts of power came with it. I don’t think there was a grand, sinister plan from the beginning. I think they stumbled into it. It was after the stumble that things got sinister.
In just a few years, these few young men would hold absolute control over global communication and news consumption.
Tomorrow: The Economics and Politics of Epistemic (read: knowledge) Chaos