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6 February 2019

The new tech totalitarianism

When companies know more about us than we know about ourselves.

By John Gray

“Industrial capitalism depended upon the exploitation and control of nature, with catastrophic consequences that we only now recognise. Surveillance capitalism depends instead upon the exploitation and control of human nature,” writes Shoshana Zuboff, a professor in the Harvard Business School. The prototypes of surveillance capitalism are Google and Facebook, which extract information from their users and deploy it to re-engineer their behaviour for maximum profit. Human experience is raw material to be mined. Individual autonomy is usurped by ubiquitous monitoring, with techniques of behaviour modification digging deep into what was once a private and subjective world. Personal experience is commodified, and reshaped in the interests of capital. Whatever utopian claims may have been made for it as a force that emancipates individuals, this is a type of collectivism that subverts what has in the past been described as free will.

“Surveillance capitalism is best described as a coup from above, not an overthrow of the state but rather an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty and a prominent force in the perilous drift towards democratic de-consolidation that now threatens Western liberal democracies,” says Zuboff. Big-data companies present the future as a new era of transparency and freedom. In fact, the end-point of information capitalism is a social order that can only be described as totalitarian.

The Age of Surveillance is packed with arresting examples of this emerging order. In 2016, 89 per cent of the revenues of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, derived from Google’s targeted advertising programmes. Google’s raw material – the browsing histories of its users – is prodigiously large. In 2017, over 40,000 search queries were processed per second – more than 3.5 billion a day and 1.2 trillion per year. Its Street View project, which has photographed urban environments in dozens of countries, is the basis for self-driving vehicles and plans for the “Google city” – a wholly wired-up environment in which practically every human interaction could be observed.

“Connected cars” could monitor drivers and lock down a vehicle if users fell behind in their payments for it. Other schemes have proposed that individuals’ health be monitored by “wearable accelerometers”, which would “improve traceability of their compliance” with dietary and medication schedules. As the “internet of things” advances, car dashboards, refrigerators, thermostats, spectacles and watches will become platforms for advertising. Location data collected from smartphones already record how people travel and shape where and what they consume.

In 2017, the clothing firm Levi Strauss brought to market an interactive denim jacket, containing sensors that detect, decipher and record gestures as minimal as the twitch of a finger. Earlier in 2015, a start-up company won a grant from the European Commission to develop automated technology that can “measure behaviour indicators that hitherto resisted measurement because they were too subtle or fleeting to be measured by the human eye and ear”.

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Bypassing conscious awareness, these technologies track human sensations and emotions more minutely than human beings can do themselves. Eventually surveillance will be omnipresent and thereby invisible. As the former executive chairman of Alphabet and Google Eric Schmidt predicted in 2015, “The internet will disappear. There will be so many IP addresses… so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with, that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.” Seamlessly woven into everyday life, technologies of monitoring and control will fashion a world different from any that existed before. The ultimate end of surveillance capitalism is a way of life in which people have surrendered their humanity without realising it.

Such is the prospect envisioned by Zuboff in this groundbreaking book. Zuboff is interdisciplinary in her approach, ranging freely across social science, philosophy and history. Following on from a seminal essay she published in 2014, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism shows how big data companies extract a “behavioural surplus” from the information they mine from their users. Aiming to apply Marx’s account of surplus value in a time when capital is accumulated through knowledge-based technology, she has given us an illuminating critical perspective on the regime of surveillance under which we all now live.

She is less successful in tracing the intellectual origins of this regime and projecting its likely future. Illustrating the limitations of much of the literature in business studies, the book concentrates mainly on recent developments in the United States. Even when other societies are discussed, the focus remains thoroughly Western. Throughout the book, the rise of the surveillance state is interpreted as a phase in the development of market capitalism; but new technologies of mass observation and behaviour modification can be used for other purposes than capital accumulation.

The historical range of the book is similarly limited. Zuboff’s account of the ideas that have shaped surveillance capitalism goes back not much further than the second half of the 20th century. The future is discussed only via vague exhortations on the need for greater democracy. Despite insistent assertions that the surveillance state is not inevitable, no realistic scenario is presented in which it can be avoided or overthrown.

Rightly, Zuboff traces the intellectual history of the surveillance regime to the ideology of radical behaviourism promoted by the Harvard psychologist and inventor BF Skinner in the novel Walden Two (1948) and in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). She also devotes considerable space to examining the ideas of the MIT computer scientist and entrepreneur Alex Pentland, particularly as developed in his book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread (2014).

While Skinner debunked the idea of a choosing individual and viewed human beings as “complex chickens”, Pentland sees himself as developing “a computational theory of human behaviour”. The claims made for this “new science” are large. Walden Two imagines a society reconstructed on behaviourist lines, where politics is replaced by “a plan” implemented by an elite of “non-competitive” dispassionate administrators. Pentland takes a similar view: our “light-speed hyperconnected world” leaves no time for collective deliberation, face-to-face negotiation or compromise. “We can no longer think of ourselves as only individuals taking carefully considered decisions.” Using laws of social physics that run parallel with those that govern machine intelligence, politics will be replaced by computational governance.

As presented by Skinner and Pentland, and by Zuboff herself, these are novel theories. In fact, while the technologies that are supposed to advance it may be recent innovations there is nothing remotely new in the vision that Skinner and Pentland preach. Both of them present their dystopian ideas in unqualifiedly positive terms – in other words, as utopias. These are not warnings against a future society that can and should be avoided, but eulogies to a glowing future that both thinkers believe is already under construction. But these internet utopias did not come from nowhere.

Nineteenth-century positivism is a pervasive influence on the prophets of the big data companies. Though he appears unaware of the fact, Pentland’s project of a “social physics” was at the heart of Auguste Comte’s vision of a society ruled by scientific experts. For Comte sociology was a physical science, which framed laws of behaviour on the basis of physiology and physics.

In positivist philosophy, which denied free will and the intrinsic value of the individual, a rational society would be technocratic and hierarchical. Knowledge and power would be concentrated in a class of planners. As Comte’s mentor, the founder of positivism Henri de Saint-Simon, put it: “The government of people will be replaced by the administration of things.” (Engels borrowed this formula when defining communism.) Comte presented his theory of society as an explicit attack on liberal values and, though less overtly expressed, Pentland’s ideas replicate Comte’s at practically every point.

Similarly, Skinner’s radical behaviourism reproduces many of the themes of the founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham. Both view human beings as bundles of sensations rather than choosing agents. If anyone originated the idea of a surveillance society it was Bentham, whose Panopticon – an ideal prison designed to keep inmates under observation at all times – was intended as a prototype for many other institutions, including workhouses, factories, asylums, hospitals and schools. To ensure the Panopticon was maximally efficient Bentham proposed a regime of behaviour modification, with inmates strictly separated from one another, rewarded for good behaviour by being given more food and increased straw in their cells and punished with hard rations and gagging. All this would occur in the perpetual glare of lamps installed at strategic points throughout the penitentiary. Bentham’s model prison strikingly anticipates Skinner’s model of society.

Understanding its roots in Comtean and Benthamite ideas helps understand the big-data utopia promoted by Google and Facebook. The common core is a type of Enlightenment scientism in which human beings are mechanical systems ruled by laws as universal and unvarying as those of physics. In common with countless others in these anxious times, Zuboff identifies the Enlightenment with the affirmation of individual autonomy, writing that surveillance capitalism runs counter to “the Enlightenment project” and “liberal ideals of freedom and dignity”. But Comte and Bentham, together with their unwitting disciples such as Skinner and Pentland, exemplify an illiberal tradition of Enlightenment thinking in which individual autonomy is dismissed as an obsolete fiction. What matters is collective welfare, and this is best achieved in a society governed by a scientific elite that re-engineers human beings by eradicating anything in them resembling an autonomous self.

Zuboff maintains that this is a totalitarian project, and in this she is correct. The surveillance state that Xi Jinping is constructing, which she discusses in a short section on China, is the most advanced version of this project. Unlike authoritarian states in the past, Xi’s China does not confine itself to quashing opposition and leaving the rest of society alone. It aims to bind the entire population to its way of thinking and thereby ensure the permanence of the regime. In Zuboff’s neo-Marxian model, the driving force is capital accumulation. In Xi’s China, however, the preservation of power is more important. Lower economic growth only increases the need for universal monitoring. The Chinese surveillance state, which is more far-reaching than any in the West, can be expected to become even more invasive as the economy slows.

This is no small point. It means that surveillance societies can develop wherever there is the necessary technology. They are not confined to market capitalism, and abolishing that economic system does not preclude a surveillance state. Zuboff compares the impact of surveillance capitalism with the devastating effects of industrial capitalism. Here she follows the lead of innumerable protestors, who believe the destruction of the natural world can be halted by socialism. But the biggest examples of environmental despoliation in modern times did not occur under the auspices of market capitalism. They happened in the course of the breakneck rush to industrialisation in the former Soviet Union and Mao’s China, where vast regions were laid to waste by pollution and soil erosion, river systems were disrupted by dams, forests ravaged and wildlife exterminated.

The destruction of Lake Baikal and Mao’s disastrous war against sparrows were part of a much larger assault on the natural world. Environmental damage has continued on a large scale in both countries, though since the abandonment of central planning there have been some attempts at mitigating it. The point is that the assault on the natural world is no more peculiar to Western capitalism than is the surveillance state.

Zuboff’s observations on the future are the weakest part of the book. She declares again and again that we can bring an end to universal surveillance if only we have the will. But who are “we”? As she admits, many people prioritise the benefits of the new media over the loss of autonomy. Some may dream of life without a smartphone, but few could tolerate living that way for long. More effective democratic government, Zuboff tells the reader, could rein in the excesses of the big data companies. Up to a point, certainly. But big companies are not the only threats. Criminal cartels, terrorist cults and tyrannical states also use new information technologies for malign purposes, and they cannot be controlled simply by legislating against them. There is no way back to a world without mass surveillance and information warfare.

That does not mean the dream of a society ruled by an all-seeing elite will ever come to pass. The titans of big data are as delusional in their thinking as any ruling class in the past, and as divided among themselves. History’s contingencies and perennial human conflicts will consign their ugly utopia to the rubbish heap, like all its predecessors. 

John Gray’s books include “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
Shoshana Zuboff
Profile Books, 704pp, £25