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17 March 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 3:05pm

Shoshana Zuboff on why Big Tech is the biggest threat to democracy

The author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism believes the expanding empire of technology behemoths poses an existential risk.

By Freddie Hayward

In the Victorian era, hoop rolling was a popular game among children. They would run behind a large, moving hoop with a stick trying to keep it upright and maintain its momentum. But “at a certain point, it’s going to wobble… and if you stop running, stop paying attention, that hoop will wobble and it will fall. Then you lose,” Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, told me when we spoke recently. “And democracy is like that hoop.”

Published in 2019, Surveillance Capitalism outlined how large technology companies, with Google and Facebook as the prototypes, extract data from users to sell predictions of their behaviour to advertisers. Their methods of extraction are increasingly invasive and ubiquitous, with the so-called internet of things providing new surveillance opportunities even when users are offline. While extracting people’s everyday experiences and determining how we act, the Big Tech companies have bypassed democratic institutions and even our own awareness. Unhindered by democratic oversight, technology companies have control over society’s access to information and media. We are potentially facing, as Zuboff writes, the “prospect of muted, sanitised tyranny”.

Since the publication of her book, Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School, has been increasingly vocal about the threat surveillance capitalism poses to democracy. As industrial capitalism was tamed through employment rights, collective bargaining and regulation in the 20th century, Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism must be brought under democratic control. “We may have democracy, or we may have surveillance society, but we cannot have both,” she wrote in a recent article.

Zuboff compared democracy to the hoop game while recounting a conversation she’d had with a young woman on her book tour. After Zuboff outlined the anti-democratic nature of surveillance capitalism in her talk, the woman stayed behind in a state of distress to speak with her. For the woman, who’d grown up in recent decades, democracy had been a constant, reassuring feature of  life. Zuboff has never shared this confidence in the permanence of democracy.

“My dad was a paratrooper [during the Second World War] and I grew up very worried about totalitarianism, and the annihilation of my family in Europe… [These] have always been intellectual concerns as far back as I can recall,” she said. “So I grew up… not taking democracy for granted.”

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Despite the young woman’s response, Zuboff said many of the people, mostly young, who attended her talks were aware of and angry about the threat surveillance capitalism poses to democracy. This may seem surprising given the extent to which young people’s lives are entwined and dependent on technology companies. Social media is not merely a tool that facilitates young people’s social relationships – it dictates how those relationships manifest.

“The young person who feels compelled to use social media is more truly and accurately described as hanging on for dear life, alive in the gaze of others because it’s the only life one has, even when it hurts,” Zuboff writes in Surveillance Capitalism.

Despite younger generations’ attachment to technology, Zuboff said that “when you start digging into the data, that assumption that we had about the generational skew is not there”. In fact, she argues, young people understand the true business model and threats these companies pose to democracy better than older people.

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But if the young are aware of the sinister nature of these companies, why are they always online? According to Zuboff, participation does not equal endorsement.

“When you actually give people options, so that they can do the things they need to do… without these externalities, that’s what they choose,” she said. “When you disclose to people more deeply what’s actually going on behind the curtain, they’re appalled, and they don’t want any part of it.”

The pandemic has exposed our reliance on the big technology companies. Work, school, entertainment and socialisation have all moved online. In November, UK government advisers suggested that people be given free mobile data to increase self-isolation compliance.

Zuboff argues this does not mean we have acquiesced to our increased dependence on technology. On the contrary, she believes the pandemic has shown people the emptiness of living life through a screen.

“Things do not progress in a linear projection… I think the pandemic has been a good example of that,” she said. “This arid, stripped down version of life [has made us] yearn for and, indeed, appreciate so much more deeply what we have naturally taken for granted, which is that we need to be in each other’s company, we need to be able to touch each other, and to embrace – and without this, we cannot be human.”

The pandemic could prove a turning point. Though over the past 12 months people’s dependence on technology companies has been entrenched, we have also seen the passing of Donald Trump’s presidency and the arrival of Joe Biden. A new administration offers an opportunity for a shift in how governments address the damaging excesses of the big technology companies.

In her book, Zuboff writes of the revolving door between the Obama administration and Silicon Valley executives, but she is optimistic that under Biden the democratic sphere will start to reassert itself. Biden has appointed a critic of Big Tech as an economic adviser, and his reported nominee for commissioner at the Free Trade Commission, which oversees privacy and antitrust enforcement, has previously criticised Amazon’s monopolistic behaviour.

Zuboff said she has “full faith” that the Biden team will reduce the power of Big Tech and ensure that “the digital century is also a democratic century… I’m very hopeful. Nothing but hope.”

Her optimism is encouraging when situated beside her view of democracy’s fragility: “Democracy is like that hoop and every generation runs to keep that hoop moving forward. The responsibility devolves to each generation to make sure that the hoop continues to advance. That’s democracy.”