This post features three fantastic books from three great, but quite different, authors on the subject of Big Tech, surveillance capitalism, and what's to be done about it.
I recently read Shoshana Zuboff's book on surveillance capitalism. Not only is the book thought provoking, but Zuboff's writing verges on the poetic at times, making it a delightful read. In her opening chapter she asks the question "Can the digital future be our home?"
This question is perhaps one of the most important of our age. More and more of our lives are being intermediated by digital systems. And yet those systems are not ours, but rather belong to the companies that provide them. And our experience on them is predicated on the goals, desires, and needs of those companies, not ours. I call these systems "administrative" because they are built to administer our experience in a particular domain for the administrator's specific purposes.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff
The challenges to humanity posed by the digital future, the first detailed examination of the unprecedented form of power called "surveillance capitalism," and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior. In this masterwork of original thinking and research, Shoshana Zuboff provides startling insights into the phenomenon that she has named surveillance capitalism. The stakes could not be higher: a global architecture of behavior modification threatens human nature in the twenty-first century just as industrial capitalism disfigured the natural world in the twentieth.
Zuboff makes a number of compelling arguments about why surveillance capitalism represents a significant threat to humanity's future. An overarching conclusion is that by putting everyone inside their administrative systems to make our lives legible to their surveillance, these companies become tyrants.
[T]yranny is the obliteration of politics. It is founded on its own strain of radical indifference in which every person, except the tyrant, is understood as an organism among organisms in an equivalency of Other-Ones.
Contrary to what many might believe, the obliteration of politics is not a good thing. As we discovered a few issues ago (see Legitimacy and Decentralized Systems), politics is how decentralized, democratic systems achieve legitimacy and coherence. Getting rid of politics requires putting everyone and everything in the centralized administrative system of the surveillance capitalist—making them subject to the dictates of the tyrant who has radical indifference to their autonomy, individuality, and humanity.
Zuboff's statement echos David Graeber's discussion of bureaucracy in The Utopia of Rules. Bureaucratic interactions are simple and predictable. But they are soulless. They are transactional and cannot provide the basis for authentic digital relationships (see Authentic Digital Relationships ).
Where does the desire for endless rules, regulations, and bureaucracy come from? How did we come to spend so much of our time filling out forms? And is it really a cipher for state violence? To answer these questions, the anthropologist David Graeber—one of our most important and provocative thinkers—traces the peculiar and unexpected ways we relate to bureaucracy today, and reveals how it shapes our lives in ways we may not even notice...though he also suggests that there may be something perversely appealing—even romantic—about bureaucracy.
Living our lives inside the administrative systems of Big Tech is akin to living your life inside an amusement park. Not altogether unpleasant, but a far cry from authentic. Stippled with moments of joy, but devoid of real happiness and freedom. Treated identically and transactionally despite pretensions to personalization.
In How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, Cory Doctorow argues that while Zuboff's observations are not incorrect, her conclusions about what constitutes surveillance capitalism's real dangers are mistaken. Where Zuboff sees companies who are getting better and better at predicting and controlling our actions, Doctorow sees companies selling the power to persuade, poorly. The real harm is the surveillance, not mind control.
For years, we've been hearing about the ills of surveillance capitalism --- the business of extracting, collecting, and selling vast reams of user data that exploded with the rise of tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. But what if everything we've been hearing is wrong? What if surveillance capitalism is not some rogue capitalism or a wrong turn taken by some misguided corporations? What if the system is working exactly as intended—and the only hope of restoring an open web is to take the fight directly to the system itself?
Zuboff's conclusion that surveillance capitalism is a new "rogue" form of capitalism leaves us with little recourse but to regulate the ills that surveillance capitalists bring about. Not unreasonably, Zuboff's prescription for this predicament is to protect, trust, and utilize democratic processes—to collectively push back. To not let our cynicism dissuade us or cause us to lose hope.
But, merely regulating a big monopoly only further entrenches it, locking the world into the status quo. If we want to destroy surveillance capitalism, Cory argues, we have to break it up and decentralize, making "big tech small again." Ultimately, the choice is to fix Big Tech or fix the internet. Cory argues for the second and I'm on board.
Fixing the internet is hard, but not impossible. Cory references Lawrence Lessig, saying "our lives are regulated by four forces: law (what's legal), code (what's technologically possible), norms (what's socially acceptable), and markets (what's profitable)." We can bring all four to bear on this problem.
Antitrust, post Reagan, has lost its teeth and come to focus only on consumer harm instead of other anti-competitive behaviors like buying up large rivals and new competitors. If the problem with "Big Tech" is that it is "big" then restructuring antitrust laws to break up large tech companies is a critical tool.
Many will fear that breaking up big tech will diminish the fruits of the digital world we've come to enjoy, and even rely on. Centralization, they will say, is the only way to safely and efficiently build messaging platforms, app stores, social networks, and other features of Web 2.0 that we've come to enjoy.
This is where Lessig's other three forces come into play. As I've written, in numerous ways, the means exist to decentralize most of the centralized Web 2.0 platforms (i.e. it's "technologically possible" in Lessig's words). The internet itself and more recent decentralized networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum show that large, decentralized systems can achieve legitimacy to accomplish global goals.
Beyond tech, I have hope that norms are changing. People are more aware and wary of the dangers of surveillance and the need for better online privacy. Collecting data is becoming less socially acceptable. Security breeches affect more and more people, waking them up to the problem of companies collecting and holding large caches of personal data. And competitors to big tech with decentralized solutions are always emerging. A little antitrust help could be what it takes to make them viable.
There's no single act that's going to change the way things work now. Getting Congress to act on antitrust requires a big shift in norms. Changing norms requires new technical possibilities, new applications, and, frankly, more privacy problems. Change is predicated on a web of interrelated actions that we must iterate over.
Returning to Zuboff's opening question: "Can the digital future be our home?" Fixing Big Tech just leaves us where we're at, with slightly fewer problems. It's a dead end road that doesn't lead to a digital home. But fixing the internet, redecentralizing it, promises a future where we can live authentic digital lives that compliment our physical lives. I choose to fight for that future.