Surveillance capitalism?


Eric Schmidt, Executive Chair Google

Surveillance capitalism, in Shoshana Zuboff’s formulation, is a new form of capitalism that works by creating surplus value from the data extracted from people in digital environments (which today is much more than just being online but includes driving your internet-capable car for example: the Internet of Everything).

Now, data about where we are, where we’re going, how we’re feeling, what we’re saying, the details of our driving, and the conditions of our vehicle are turning into beacons of revenue that illuminate a new commercial prospect.

According to Zuboff’s analysis, surveillance capitalism was invented by companies like Google and Facebook in the Internet era. We’ve heard before how these companies treat you as the product rather than the customer, but Zuboff aims to show that users are “a means to profits in a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products” (emphasis added).

Rather, we are workers and the extra behaviors we perform (ie., labor) produce a surplus which she calls “behavioral surplus” but could better be called surplus behavior to align with Marx’s surplus value. Either way, this surplus is what is sold on, and not just to advertisers but to anyone who wants to have predictive capacity. (Here we can recall Louise Amoore’s point about algorithms using data derivatives to “infer across the gaps”.) This value is not returned to the workers however, despite the fact that companies know their average revenue per user, or ARPU. If you live in North America for example, you’re worth $12.43 to Facebook in income, but unless you work for them I doubt you’ve seen any of that. Following David Harvey, she calls this “dispossession by surveillance.”

While I think much of this is correct, a lot of the details need to be filled in (perhaps in her book Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization coming out in 2017).

It may also not be as new as it looks. You can find similar arguments going back to the 1980s if not the 1970s; well before the Internet era. In 1986 Sut Jhally and Bill Livant showed how “there is a factory in your living room” in their important paper “Watching as Working: The Valorization of Audience Consciousness.” Drawing on the work of Dallas Smythe in the 1970s who sought to go beyond the prevailing view that mass communication was about ideology, a view dating back to at least Walter Lippmann. Smythe’s view was that the “commodity form” of mass communication was audiences. These audiences use “their” time to produce commodities by watching advertising-supported TV. These commodities are:

the services of audiences with predictable specifications who will pay attention in predictable numbers and at particular times to particular means of communication

Note the foreshadowing of Zuboff’s argument that Google sell predictable (surplus) behavior to advertisers and others. Smythe notes as well how part of what is sold are the data and metadata about users or what he calls “the demographics”:

age, sex, income level, family composition, urban or rural location, ethnic character, ownership of home, automobile, credit card status, social class, and in the case of hobby and fan magazines, a dedication to photography, model electric trains, sports cars, philately, do-it-yourself crafts, foreign travel, kinky sex, etc.

Of course today, as Zuboff notes these mere categorizations are replaced with persistent live data streams, especially of your real-time geolocation. But nevertheless, the same basic idea is at play here.

Jhally and Livant argued that when we watch TV, we perform what they call “watching extra.” It is this “extra” that we produce through our labor as an audience that is made into a commodity. When we watch a show (or today use the Internet) there is both necessary and surplus watching time, they argued. The costs of putting on a show involve making it good enough to make us want to continue watching it–to reproduce our activity of watching. However, we watch more than is strictly necessary to reproduce our watching, eg., the advertising. This extra or surplus watching time forms the basis for valorization.

Zuboff has given this a memorable name and updated it for the Internet world–nothing wrong with that. I also think she makes a very good point about the productive anxiety of uncertainty:

Paradoxically, the certainty of uncertainty is both an enduring source of anxiety and one of our most fruitful facts. It produced the universal need for social trust and cohesion, systems of social organization, familial bonding, and legitimate authority, the contract as formal recognition of reciprocal rights and obligations, and the theory and practice of what we call “free will.” When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of perpetual compliance with someone else’s plan.

Of course in this case, the anxious drive to remove uncertainty has produced the surveillant state, which Zuboff acknowledges is a threat to democratic life. What we need to do better is examine what kinds of anxieties there are, and what it is they produce. There are already some good resources about anxiety out there, and of course it has a long history from Freud to Lacan. More on this later and hopefully we can address it at the AAG conference next year.


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