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Paul Vallely: the tech companies are watching you 

08 February 2019

Surveillance capitalism is the new norm, says Paul Vallely


IT WAS, Andrew Marr said on Radio 4’s Start the Week, the most important book that they had featured this year. Since he was speaking on what is essentially a book-plugging programme — though often an intensely interesting one — that was an arresting claim. The book had been compared to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the writings of Karl Marx. It was hard to ignore the invitation to listen.

The book is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by the Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff. It analyses the latest stage in the development of the capitalist system, which, to Smith, was about free trade and the benign collective effect of individuals’ self-interested choices — and, to Marx, a system of industrial exploitation. The latter predicted that capitalism would eventually collapse under the weight of its own inherent contradictions.

Since then, we have had several iterations that have, so far, proved Marx wrong. Industrial capitalism transformed itself into “consumer capitalism”, which made the exploited happily complicit in their own exploitation. Then came “globalisation capitalism”, which, in contrast, has made so many people unhappy that they have embraced Brexit and Donald Trump in their eagerness to find simplistic solutions. But, now, thanks to the arrival of digital technology, we have “surveillance capitalism”: a “rogue mutation”, Professor Zuboff says, who was, until now, a contented-enough capitalist..

We think we know about the problems thrown up by digital technology: the United States National Security Agency reading our emails; Google’s street-mapping vehicles sucking up IP addresses, passwords, and search histories from our home computers; Facebook sharing the personal data of millions of users with companies set on swaying the Brexit and Trump election votes.

Professor Zuboff suggests that these are not seedy exceptions but the new norm. Google and the rest constantly monitor our data flows — from our searches, emails, social exchanges, documents, calendars, journeys, and locations. Then they predict, with extraordinary accuracy — to advertisers and others — what will be our future needs and desires.

Sinisterly, they present themselves as doing one thing — offering free apps and services — while they’re really doing another, creating what Professor Zuboff calls “huge pipelines of dataflow”. Pokémon Go was presented as a free game to get people out and about in the real world, searching for Pokémon monsters. What no one told the gamers was that companies such as McDonald’s were paying to have monsters put in their premises to attract people in to spend. Surveillance capitalism thus manipulates both free will and free markets.

Governments have been complicit in all this. Google’s pioneering was being done at the time of 9/11, and the military and secret services were happy with systems that would massively extend their intelligence-gathering options. But we, too, signed up for all this by clicking “Agree” when we were offered free services, without ever reading the Terms and Conditions. When social scientists offered free WiFi, they found that most people clicked “Accept” without noticing the clause by which the user agreed to hand over their first-born child to the service provider. The researchers called it “the Herod clause”.

The wider reality is not so amusing. “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product,” as digital watchers say. No wonder that Google, Facebook, and co. keep insisting that their technology is too complex to be regulated.

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