Untangling Shoshana Zuboff’s very important NYTimes editorial — part 1 of many
A week or two ago Shoshana Zuboff published “The Coup We Are Not Talking About” an important editorial in the Sunday New York times. She’s writing about the surveillance society we live in and dude, it’s really worth understanding. But her writing was lo-oo-oo-ng and the language Zuboff uses was confusing to me, so, I broke it down into sections — I think there are like, 9 of them. This is the first of many posts about her editorial.
Zuboff opens with a little history, asserting that surveillance in general got a huge boost when countries traumatized by attacks such as 9/11 became totally obsessed with behavior monitoring. She asserts there is now real threat against our Republic and democratic norms. The problems stem from “surveillance capitalism” which I promise you we will get into. That surveillance capitalism allowed an “epistemic coup” which I translate to mean “knowledge coup” because the word epistemic confuses me.
In the wake of 9/11, the scale of data collection on us and our behavior was unprecedented. And soon there were new companies out there, cracking the code of internet profitability. These new enterprises became known as social media companies. And perhaps as a result of increased government surveillance, these companies emerged would quickly become the most powerful organizations in the world.
While they collected vast swaths of information about us, they engineered a fundamental, anti-democratic coup. Zuboff says that this coup is marked by an unprecedented concentration of knowledge about each of us in the hands of companies. Turns out that collection of knowledge is very, very valuable and it has led to unaccountable power accruing in the hands of those who laid claim to information about us.
So, how is that a coup?
First, accept that we now live in an information society/civilization. And that information societies are defined by knowledge. Our civilization is organized around: who has information; how that information is governed and; with what authority that governing is administered. In our case a handful of social media companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. are in charge.
Let’s make this personal. Ask yourself the question who knows and collects information about me? Who decides who gets to know this information about me? Here’s where the revolution happened. These companies simply decided they would own it. They didn’t ask permission. They didn’t tell us what they were doing. They just did it and now they say they own the data that is us. AND, they protect that assertion of ownership by controlling our critical information systems and infrastructures.
Tomorrow: So, how did this coup go down?