Black Spring (Black Wings, Book 7)

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Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free. This duality set information technology apart from earlier generations of technology: information technology produces new knowledge territories by virtue of its informating capability, always turning the world into information. The result is that these new knowledge territories become the subject of political conflict. Now the same dilemmas of knowledge, authority and power have surged over the walls of our offices, shops and factories to flood each one of us… and our societies.

Surveillance capitalists were the first movers in this new world. They declared their right to know, to decide who knows, and to decide who decides. JN: So the big story is not really the technology per se but the fact that it has spawned a new variant of capitalism that is enabled by the technology?

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We have no formal control over these processes because we are not essential to the new market action. Instead we are exiles from our own behaviour, denied access to or control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others. We are the native peoples now whose claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience. While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism.

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The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those.

SZ: Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty. This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value.

This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location. The evolution did not stop there. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. These processes are meticulously designed to produce ignorance by circumventing individual awareness and thus eliminate any possibility of self-determination.


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It has no foundation in democratic or moral legitimacy, as it usurps decision rights and erodes the processes of individual autonomy that are essential to the function of a democratic society. The message here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs. SZ: During the past two decades surveillance capitalists have had a pretty free run, with hardly any interference from laws and regulations. Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power. We enter the 21st century marked by this stark inequality in the division of learning: they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them.

These new forms of social inequality are inherently antidemocratic.

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First, surveillance capitalists no longer rely on people as consumers. Instead, supply and demand orients the surveillance capitalist firm to businesses intent on anticipating the behaviour of populations, groups and individuals. Second, by historical standards the large surveillance capitalists employ relatively few people compared with their unprecedented computational resources. General Motors employed more people during the height of the Great Depression than either Google or Facebook employs at their heights of market capitalisation.

Finally, surveillance capitalism depends upon undermining individual self-determination, autonomy and decision rights for the sake of an unobstructed flow of behavioural data to feed markets that are about us but not for us. This antidemocratic and anti-egalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse of digital technology.

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On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. JN: Our societies seem transfixed by all this: we are like rabbits paralysed in the headlights of an oncoming car.

This does not mean, however, that we are foolish, lazy, or hapless. On the contrary, in my book I explore numerous reasons that explain how surveillance capitalists got away with creating the strategies that keep us paralysed. These include the historical, political and economic conditions that allowed them to succeed. Other significant reasons are the need for inclusion, identification with tech leaders and their projects, social persuasion dynamics, and a sense of inevitability, helplessness and resignation.

The result is that the choice mechanisms we have traditionally associated with the private realm are eroded or vitiated. There can be no exit from processes that are intentionally designed to bypass individual awareness and produce ignorance, especially when these are the very same processes upon which we must depend for effective daily life. So our participation is best explained in terms of necessity, dependency, the foreclosure of alternatives, and enforced ignorance. SZ: The tech leaders desperately want us to believe that technology is the inevitable force here, and their hands are tied.

But there is a rich history of digital applications before surveillance capitalism that really were empowering and consistent with democratic values. Technology is the puppet, but surveillance capitalism is the puppet master. Surveillance capitalism is a human-made phenomenon and it is in the realm of politics that it must be confronted. The resources of our democratic institutions must be mobilised, including our elected officials. GDPR [a recent EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the EU] is a good start, and time will tell if we can build on that sufficiently to help found and enforce a new paradigm of information capitalism.

Our societies have tamed the dangerous excesses of raw capitalism before, and we must do it again. While there is no simple five-year action plan, much as we yearn for that, there are some things we know. Despite existing economic, legal and collective-action models such as antitrust, privacy laws and trade unions, surveillance capitalism has had a relatively unimpeded two decades to root and flourish.

But what is the point of owning data that should not exist in the first place? All that does is further institutionalise and legitimate data capture. Data ownership also fails to reckon with the realities of behavioural surplus.

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Surveillance capitalists extract predictive value from the exclamation points in your post, not merely the content of what you write, or from how you walk and not merely where you walk. Another example: there may be sound antitrust reasons to break up the largest tech firms, but this alone will not eliminate surveillance capitalism.

Instead it will produce smaller surveillance capitalist firms and open the field for more surveillance capitalist competitors. So what is to be done? In any confrontation with the unprecedented, the first work begins with naming. My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Technology The Observer. About the Author Christina Henry Christina Henry is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and enjoys running long distances, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching movies with subtitles in her spare time. Read more. Also by Christina Henry. Related titles. The Colour Of Magic. Good Omens. Neil Gaiman , Terry Pratchett. The Night Circus. Christopher Paolini. Sophia, Princess Among Beasts. Captive Prince. Criminal Macabre. The Bear and The Nightingale. The Fate of the Tearling.

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