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The Era of Surveillance Capitalism

With my newly discovered infatuation with fantasy literature, I recently acquired a multi-book package from a well-known bookstore. Now I'm inundated with novel adverts on Google and Instagram. The previous week, it was sweaters and cardigans.Have you ever wondered why and how this happens? Capitalist surveillance is the answer. The digital revolution's ongoing improvements may be astounding. However, it is critical to understand how high-tech behemoths use our data for their gain.

Surveillance capitalism, as defined by Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, is the unilateral appropriation of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. This data is then processed, packaged, and sold into behavioural futures markets – corporate clients that have a monetary interest in understanding what we will do now, soon, and later1. The stakes are at an all-time high: A worldwide infrastructure of behaviour modification challenges human nature in the twenty-first century, just as industrial capitalism did in the twentieth.

In the late twentieth century, our economy shifted away from massive production lines in factories and toward a greater reliance on information. Surveillance capitalism, on the other hand, is built on a digital business model and relies on "big data" to generate revenue. This approach frequently collects data from the same categories of individuals who will ultimately become the targets. Google was the first to figure out how to collect excess behavioural data, more than they required for services, and utilise it to create “prediction products” that they could sell to their commercial clients, in this case, advertisers.

Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm, gathered personal data from millions of Facebook users without their consent in the 2010s, primarily for political advertising. The app, “This Is Your Digital Life” consisted of a series of questions designed to generate psychological profiles on users, as well as data acquired from the user's Facebook friends using Facebook's Open Graph network. The software collected information from up to 87 million Facebook profiles. Cambridge Analytica used the data to provide statistical aid to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump's presidential campaigns in 20162.

These revelations uncovered the extent to which internet corporations monitor online activities. Cambridge Analytica violated Facebook's policies by collecting and selling data under the guise of academic study. Despite the dubious nature of their operations, the larger players and key actors in surveillance capitalism, Facebook and Google, are continuing to amass as much information as they can legitimately. This includes data about their users, their online friends, and even their offline friends (known as shadow profiling). Platforms profit enormously from this. Cambridge Analytica was, in this sense, a minor player in the big data industry.

"What's the problem?" my friend asks, referring to Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook, as well as cookies that make websites faster and more comfortable. In her opinion, anything that keeps people secure and deters unscrupulous acts is a positive factor. My friend's point of view completely stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps her opinion is the reason Surveillance Capitalism hasn't gained the traction I expected it to. Perhaps my doubts and concerns are the minority position, and the mainstream view is a slightly indifferent acceptance of surveillance and surveillance capitalism.

The more I thought about her perspectives, the more they reminded me of the "give to get" ratio, which states that if the value of what an individual receives- personalised services, convenience, faster outcomes- is greater than the value of what that individual gives- personal data, which has little immediate value to the individual- the participant will almost certainly accept the tradeoff of personal data for a good, service, or experience. This idea is central to the FAANG (the acronym refers to five prominent American technology companies: Meta; formerly known as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet; formerly known as Google) success narrative. Nobody in the broader population was aware of what was going on. Infrastructure has been built with public funds but without public consent.

Most websites will claim to collect behavioural or other personal data, such as location, to optimise or tailor the user's experience; but, as previously discussed, the methods in which personal data is used under surveillance capitalism go far beyond personalisation3. The obvious information gap between Big Tech and the individual provides a handy scenario in which people ostensibly consent to surveillance.

The loss of privacy inevitable in surveillance capitalism leads to a loss of personal autonomy, degrading one's democratic participation; it might be claimed that the right to choose is redistributed in a way that is damaging to democracy itself. They know everything there is to know about us, yet we know very little about them. In other words, the architecture of surveillance capitalism deprives individuals of their freedom of choice and autonomy. Worryingly, the strategies used to alter client behaviour are designed to avoid individual awareness and hence circumvent individual decision rights. These information gaps create entirely new dimensions of social inequality and injustice. A controlled "hive" of absolute connectivity is established, luring with promises of total assurance for maximum profit—at the expense of democracy, freedom, and our human future. As a result, we, the users, are blissfully unconscious of their power.

The loss of privacy inevitable in surveillance capitalism leads to a loss of personal autonomy, degrading one's democratic participation; it might be claimed that the right to choose is redistributed in a way that is damaging to democracy itself. They know everything there is to know about us, yet we know very little about them. In other words, the architecture of surveillance capitalism deprives individuals of their freedom of choice and autonomy. Worryingly, the strategies used to alter client behaviour are designed to avoid individual awareness and hence circumvent individual decision rights. These information gaps create entirely new dimensions of social inequality and injustice. A controlled "hive" of absolute connectivity is established, luring with promises of total assurance for maximum profit—at the expense of democracy, freedom, and our human future. As a result, we, the users, are blissfully unconscious of their power.

If we want to put an end to the age of surveillance capitalism, three areas must be tackled

First, there must be a seismic shift in public perception. It entails awakening to a sense of fury and indignation. Second, we must mobilise our democratic institutions' resources in the form of law and regulation. These comprise, but are not limited to, privacy and antitrust regulations. We must also create new laws and institutional frameworks to counter the mechanisms and imperatives of surveillance capitalism. A third area concerns the possibility of competing solutions. People will shun surveillance capitalists' backstage methods once they become aware of them. This indicates a mismatch between supply and demand: market distortion. So, once again, we see a historical possibility for an organisation alliance to establish an alternative system, one that restores us to the previous promise of the digital age as an era of liberation and knowledge democratisation.

Surveillance capitalism is on the brink of dictating the social order and determining the digital future, with no resistance from law or society—if we permit it. Blissful ignorance is no stance at all, especially when some of the most crucial issues affecting humankind's basic existence are being decided right in front of our eyes.

Arushi Singh
High School Student

References:

Laidler, J. (2019, March 4). Harvard professor says surveillance capitalism is undermining democracy. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/03/harvard-professor-says-surveillance-capitalism-is-undermining-democracy/

Hindman, M. (2018, March 30). How Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook targeting model really worked – according to the person who built it. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-cambridge-analyticas-facebook-targeting-model-really-worked-according-to-the-person-who-built-it-94078

The Pros and Cons of Surveillance Capitalism | Cognizant. (n.d.-a). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.cognizant.com/futureofwork/article/the-pros-and-cons-of-surveillance-and-surveillance-capitalism

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