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In the rapid pace of the 21st century, there seems to be one broad goal on everyone’s minds: speed and the simplification of complexities. 

If we look back over the past half-century, with each advancement in technology, a new set of capabilities have emerged. First, at the start of the millennium, the growth of fibre-optics cables, wireless systems and satellites made it seem as though the world wasn’t as large as it used to be. The unreachable was now within reach and connectivity became ubiquitous.

Less than a decade later, the iPhone entered the market, bringing with it a fresh wave of sensors, cloud computing, digitization and the most importantly – touch. With a single swipe and a couple of taps, you could search for a restaurant to order food, get it delivered to the right spot and then rate the service – and all of this became free, easy and fast. An originally complex process simplified to a previously unimaginable level of convenience. 

In the past decade, however, advances in this field have just grown exponentially. Voice and facial recognition have taken over the playing field. Big data and the internet of all things has only gotten bigger, algorithms have gotten more powerful, and artificial intelligence has reached new heights of success. Both automation and surveillance have dug deep, and continue to do so. At the helm of this new-age exploration, there is none other than our capitalist behemoths. 

A Harvard professor, Shoshana Zuboff, has recently coined a buzzing new phrase – “surveillance capitalism,” that seems to be the next big thing in the world’s economic order. As Zuboff too explains in her work, surveillance capitalists use human experiences as data to anticipate what you as a consumer will do next, and then trades these predictions in what she calls “behavioural future markets.”

Almost all growth and increase in profits that corporations and enterprises see today are based on an advancement in artificial intelligence that allows them to make their services and products more efficient, user-friendly and attractive. For example, Siri and Alexa have already proved their mettle in being able to run a household with products like Google Home that automate many household functions with a simple voice command. Banks and insurance companies are successfully increasing their “containment rate” which is the percentage of calls and queries a virtual agent can handle without the interference of an actual person.

This ability to turn surplus data into behavioural predictions first came into play during the dot-com burst and became popular for the purpose of running targeted advertisements. Google was the first to deploy this idea in 2001 and did so in complete secrecy. By 2004, when the company went public about its work, Google’s revenue had increased by 3,590 per cent.

Facebook followed suit soon, and less than two decades later, Facebook and Google have a duopoly in the online advertising market. The business of selling behavioural predictions has proved to be immensely lucrative for those who delve in it. Primary services of such companies yield them negligible profits, so tracking consumer behaviour and data have become crucial for their sustenance. Ironically, this lead to meeting the genuine needs of the consumer become secondary while selling predictions of their behaviour became the primary focus.However, it is no longer limited to advertising and has spread across a wide range of products and services and economic sectors, (like insurance, retail, healthcare, finance and education to name a few) that have birthed whole new economic ecosystems. Nearly every product or service that is “smart” or “personalized” and acts as a “digital assistant” is a byproduct of this surveillance economy.

In the contemporary world, surveillance capitalism has emerged as a derivative of the age-old industrial capitalism that prevailed for the past century. What is alarming is that the business models that surveillance capitalists function on rely on the dark side of digitization. Nevertheless, the entire system of artificial intelligence and surveillance has run so deep that a few Russians were able to manipulate the entire American Presidential Election. The Cambridge Analytica fiasco has been spoken about enough, only to be exacerbated by the spreading of fake news at an industrial level. 

Their involvement and encroachment into what we see and what we do only seem to be getting deeper. A brief mention of a particular thermos in a text conversation I had with my friend was followed by the appearance of an ad for the very same on my Instagram feed the next day. Even services based entirely on creativity and personal tastes, that are extremely hard to collect accurate and objective data on, are served to us with uncanny accuracy. Take the personalized playlists and suggestions that apps like Youtube and Spotify offer as an example.

 While every user of Facebook or Google has set their privacy settings to be as strict as they wish it to be, what we do, see and say is still being collected and stored to perhaps be monetized later. Consider Pokemon Go – a game that was initially lauded for having brought adolescents together and out into the open. Interestingly enough, it was later found that the game’s creators had inked profitable deals with commercial and retail giants like McDonald’s and Starbucks to direct Pokemon hunters to their doors. If you reconsider this, is it not a global means of behavioural modification – the efficacy of which is impelling?

The unlimited access that today’s companies have to behavioural data of its consumers gives them immense market power, in a way that differs from what industrial capitalists wielded. While industrial capitalists with their smokestacks evoke images of ruthless working conditions and cut-throat competition, surveillance capitalists are in fact posing a greater threat to the economic and social well-being of the masses.

The post-war corporations of the previous century were expected to offer some form of communal reciprocity by hiring more workers and by paying higher wages. Contrastingly, Silicon Valley seems to promote an extreme form of entrepreneurial capitalism where there exists a minimal sense of responsibility for the communities that they serve. 

These surveillance capitalists operate on “hyperscale,” where despite enormous market capitalization, they employ very few people. In earlier decades, firms would aim at reducing their workforce by single digit numbers. Yet, Mohit Joshi, the President of Infosys, has recently questioned: “why can’t we do it with 1 per cent of the people we have?

The past two decades have seen the emergence of a new form of capitalism that is unlike any economic order that the modern world has witnessed before, and could have more harmful ramifications that we expect. While it appears that our lives are being simplified every day, we are instead getting sucked into a system that exploits our autonomy without really giving anything back. 

 Generalizing the comparison, Shoshana Zuboff has said “industrial capitalism transformed nature’s raw materials into commodities. Surveillance capitalism lays its claims to the stuff of human nature.” Is that the prized commodity that we want the market to chase after?

 Yet, what seems most appalling is that the competition among these surveillance capitalists is slowly but steadily challenging the foundations of our democratic societies. The paranoid youth might tape the camera on their laptops, but surveillance-reliant firms know everything about us, while we know nothing of their operations. Their predictions are about us, but not for us. While our behaviour is being packaged and sold, how does one maintain a sense of self that isn’t open to being harvested for some monetary value?

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider capitalism’s new and close relations with data. Implementable restrictions on data collection and a closer watch on the workings and production of particular goods and services might be what is needed. However, no governing body has cracked the code to this yet and it only seems to be getting harder to do so. We are both legally and ethically far behind these capitalists, and the game of catch up has to be a quick one to avoid a catastrophe of privacy breaches and market power. 

 

 

By Padmini Prasad

2nd year undergraduate student, Shri Ram College of Commerce

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