Surviving the Information Civilization

Three Principles for the Third Decade Part 8 of so many unpacking Shoshana Zuboff’s very important New York Times editorial

A TL/DR synopsis of the last post: Social media platforms are political-economic institutions that operate as chaos machines for hire.

Yipes.

Aren’t you ready to start considering what to do about that? I am. We’ll just scratch the surface of what to do, today.

A good place to start is to say that I don’t hate social media. I kinda love it. I love seeing what my friends are up to. I love sharing lives and moments of people who are geographically inconvenient. During pandemic, since everyone but the people I live with are geographically inconvenient social media has been especially valuable. I love social media.

But.

Somewhere along the line social media got a bad boss who fixed it up with a corrosive business model. We have to fix that.

The issue is social media’s business model.

We’ve got a lot of laws, none of which protect us from the Knowledge Coup perpetrated by surveillance capitalism. And none of which protect democratic norms or the functioning of our Republic from the surveillance capitalism.

China took a hard look at the technologies that underlie the surveillance economy and saw a lot they liked. They are deploying all sorts of digital technologies to advance their system of authoritarian rule. That alone should be a warning to the democracy besotted.

Meanwhile, leadership in the West remains ambivalent and I think under-educated about the surveillance economy. That naïve ambivalence leaves us and our democracy vulnerable. Because regardless of how we feel about regulating or dealing with these companies, surveillance capitalist business models are busy whacking away at our ability to share a common understanding of what is real and what are lies.

Time is of the essence.

We are already two decades into this thing. For twenty years we’ve allowed ourselves to drift away from the public commons crucial to democracy’s survival. Those public spaces have been replaced with surveillance and behavioral controls that live far outside the constraints of democratic governance. We are slowly ceding our democracy to the ethics and morals of a virtual world created by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and governed by the politics of personal profit.

There are new sheriffs in town and we didn’t elect them.

So far, we have responded to this new information society we find ourselves living in by throwing the laws and logic of earlier eras. It shouldn’t be a surprise, that strategy isn’t working. Seems to me it’s a bit like governing air travel by the rules of the road.

Here’s how Zuboff puts it: Our Democracy is unable to deal with this world so long as we refuse to consider a charter of rights, legal frameworks and institutional forms required to ensure a digital future that is compatible with democratic society.

Our democracy is under a siege that only democracy can end. Democracy will have to be the savior and the saved.