Surveillance capitalism

On her website, the Harvard professor Shoshana Zubhoff says: “I’ve dedicated this part of my life to understanding and conceptualising the transition to an information civilization“. Her latest book is ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power’ . It draws together four themes to argue that we have allowed the global technology companies – notably Google and Facebook – to become dangerously out of control. Her themes are the historical emergence of psychological individuality, the conditions for human development, the digital revolution and the evolution of capitalism. In Start the Week on 4 February, Andrew Marr explored these ideas with her.

The discussion explained how the tech companies have found a completely new way of making money by digging deep into our imaginations and then changing our behaviour. As a result, and while democracy slept, they have brought about the largest asymmetry of knowledge and therefore of power that the world has ever seen. We now have institutions that know everything about us while we know almost nothing about them. And it’s not just Google and Facebook; many other, traditional-looking companies in sectors such as transport, insurance, healthcare and education are now trying to get in on the act.

The good news is that we are becoming aware of the nature of this threat and beginning to counter it. This is happening at the political level, for example through the actions of the European Union to strengthen and enforce the regulations. It is also happening at the commercial level: as market demand grows for a more responsible form of capitalism – one that respects people’s privacy – companies are emerging to challenge surveillance capitalism. We need an alliance of these companies to succeed in creating a new eco-system that can offer an alternative pathway to the digital future.

At the personal level, too, there are ways for us to regain control: we can choose to use online tools that don’t capture our data for surveillance purposes; if we can’t avoid the surveillance tools, then we can setup their privacy controls to minimise what they collect; and we can, of course, change our mindsets about the true meaning of ‘free’ and choose to pay the comparatively small amounts needed to buy services from the emerging eco-system referred to above. I’ll be investigating these personal choices and will report back.