Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Surveillance capitalism

Digital technology has been 'hijacked':
Futures Forum: A simple guide to algorithms
Futures Forum: Reforming the data economy

To the extent that our politics has been manipulated - for example, in the UK:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and the use of data analytics
Futures Forum: Brexit: and Exeter's MP once 'regarded as a crank' >>> >>> but now questions are multiplying over the roles of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories
Futures Forum: Brexit: and Exeter's MP asking the government to investigate
Futures Forum: Brexit: and new evidence emerging over the role of Cambridge Analytica > follow the money

Although this manipulation goes way beyond these shores:
Futures Forum: The weaponization of social media
Futures Forum: How to ensure the power and accountability in the data economy becomes more evenly distributed
Futures Forum: The age of Social Warming
Futures Forum: The rise of the data oligarchs
Futures Forum: The promises of technological innovation >>> "The rise of the techno-libertarians: the five most socially-destructive aspects of Silicon Valley"
Futures Forum: The promises of technological innovation >>> "So, if networked communication and cybernetic technologies are so potentially liberating, why are they so authoritarian in the forms they currently take?" 

Start the Week on Radio 4 looks at the latest thinking:  

Who is watching you?

Start the Week

Society is at a turning point, warns Professor Shoshana Zuboff. Democracy and liberty are under threat as capitalism and the digital revolution combine forces. She tells Andrew Marr how new technologies are not only mining our minds for data, but radically changing them in the process. As Facebook celebrates its 15th birthday she examines what happens when a few companies have unprecedented power and little democratic oversight.

Although behavioural data is constantly being abstracted by tech companies, John Thornhill, Innovations Editor at the Financial Times, questions whether they have yet worked out how to use it effectively to manipulate people. And he argues that the technological revolution has brought many innovations which have benefitted society.

The award-winning writer Ece Temelkuran has warned readers about rising authoritarianism in her native Turkey. In her new book, How To Lose a Country, she widens that warning to the rest of the world. She argues that right-wing populism and nationalism do not appear already fully-formed in government - but creep insidiously in the shadows, unchallenged and underestimated until too late.

Producer: Katy Hickman

Shoshana Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School. She has been called ‘the true prophet of the information age’ by the Financial Times for her book, In the Age of the Smart Machine.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is published by Profile.

John Thornhill is the Innovation Editor at the Financial Times writing a regular column on the impact of technology. He is also the founder of the FT125 forum, which holds monthly events for senior business executives, and host of Tech Tonic, the FT’s weekly podcast on technology.
Sifted is the FT's new media site

Ece Temelkuran is an award-winning Turkish novelist and political commentator whose. She has been twice recognised as Turkey’s most-read political columnist, and twice rated as one of the ten most influential people in social media.
How To Lose A Country - The 7 Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship is published by Fourth Estate

BBC Radio 4 - Start the Week, Who is watching you?
Start the Week - Who is watching you? - BBC Sounds

We can look to China to see where this is going: 

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of China’s Social-Credit System


In Hangzhou and throughout Shandong province, gold stars and black marks have begun to shape public and private behavior.

By René Raphael and Ling Xi
JANUARY 23, 2019

The most important measure is the new “social credit” surveillance system. Since last summer, words like honesty (cheng) and credibility (xin) have appeared on propaganda posters that accompany a growing panoply of public and private mechanisms that assess individuals, officials, businesses, and professional sectors and reward the good and punish the bad.

Lin Junyue, a researcher from Beijing, has worked on such a system since 1999, when he was appointed chief engineer for a new team set up at the request of then–Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. Lin said: “American companies asked Zhu to create tools to provide them with more information on the Chinese companies they wanted to work with. I made several study trips to the US with my colleagues and we realized that we had to create something even better: a solid system for documenting the creditworthiness of Chinese citizens and enterprises. Our report ‘Towards a National System of Credit Management’ came out in March 2000, just before the two national assemblies were held. The term ‘social credit’ followed in 2002, when an official suggested a lexical symmetry with social security.”

Lin rejects any comparison with the episode of the British television series Black Mirror in which society is controlled by social-credit rating. He refutes the idea of nationwide individual notation. “We’re not doing that, even though we do go further than the standard solvency assessment. All kinds of data are gathered over time about a given individual or organization. What that does, thanks to new criteria, is to enable exemplary individuals or businesses with no economic history to have access to credit, calls for tenders, and much else.”

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of China’s Social-Credit System | The Nation

And Start the Week looks at the Chinese system:
Nosedive (Black Mirror) - Wikipedia
No, China isn’t Black Mirror – social credit scores are more complex and sinister than that
China’s ‘social credit’ system is a real-life ‘Black Mirror’ nightmare - NYPost
Credit as a Social Technology: Black Mirror, China, and the Case for Social Credit

Evgeny Morozov writes on how technology, politics and economics interact:
Evgeny Morozov's homepage

He has a regular column in the Guardian:
Evgeny Morozov | The Guardian

For example

Why US rightwing populists and their global allies disagree over big tech

Evgeny Morozov

The American wing of the movement sees big tech as a target of attack while populists in the rest of the world see it as their best chance of escaping intellectual hegemony

Fri 25 Jan 2019 18.52 GMT

A pragmatic embrace of digital platforms is where the populist consensus ends and the intellectual evaluation of Silicon Valley’s significance is rather cacophonous. Illustration: Thomas Pullin

The emerging global movement of rightwing populists is guilty of many things but ideological incoherence in choosing their enemies is generally not one of them. Whether it is Steve Bannon bashing Pope Francis, Matteo Salvini attacking the “do-gooders” in humanitarian NGOs or Marine Le Pen venting against the dull technocrats in Brussels, the populists go after a predictable, well-calculated set of targets. If anyone chooses their enemies well, it’s them.

But there’s one issue on which there’s no agreement between American rightwing populists and their peers in the rest of the world: what to make of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, its services and platforms have been a boon to the populists everywhere, greatly boosting their audience numbers and allowing them to target potential voters with highly personalized messages; the Cambridge Analytica fiasco has made it quite clear. Today, upstart and new rightwing parties like Spain’s Vox instinctively understand the primacy of digital battles; Vox already leads all other Spanish parties in terms of Instagram followers.

Why US rightwing populists and their global allies disagree over Big Tech | Evgeny Morozov | Opinion | The Guardian

And he writes for the Baffler: 
Evgeny Morozoy - The Baffler

Here is his latest piece for the magazine - where he looks at Surveillance Capitalism:

Capitalism’s New Clothes

Shoshana Zuboff's new book on “surveillance capitalism” emphasizes the former at the expense of the latter

Evgeny Morozov, February 4

Picture: The Baffler


IN A SERIES of remarkably prescient articles, the first of which was published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the summer of 2013, Shoshana Zuboff pointed to an alarming phenomenon: the digitization of everything was giving technology firms immense social power. From the modest beachheads inside our browsers, they conquered, Blitzkrieg-style, our homes, cars, toasters, and even mattresses. Toothbrushes, sneakers, vacuum cleaners: our formerly dumb household subordinates were becoming our “smart” bosses. Their business models turned data into gold, favoring further expansion.

Google and Facebook were restructuring the world, not just solving its problems. The general public, seduced by the tech world’s youthful, hoodie-wearing ambassadors and lobotomized by TED Talks, was clueless. Zuboff saw a logic to this digital mess; tech firms were following rational—and terrifying—imperatives. To attack them for privacy violations was to miss the scale of the transformation—a tragic miscalculation that has plagued much of the current activism against Big Tech.

This analytical error has also led many clever, well-intentioned people to insist that Silicon Valley should—and could—repent. To insist, as these critics do, that Google should start protecting our privacy is, for Zuboff, “like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand or asking a giraffe to shorten its neck.” The imperatives of surveillance capitalism are almost of the evolutionary kind: no clever policy, not even in Congress, has ever succeeded in shortening the giraffe’s neck (it has, however, done wonders for Mitch McConnell’s).

Zuboff ‘s pithy term for this regime, “surveillance capitalism,” has caught on. (That this term had been previously used—and in a far more critical manner—by the Marxists at The Monthly Review, is a minor genealogical inconvenience for Zuboff.) Her new, much-awaited book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism exhaustively documents its sinister operations. From Pokemon Go to smart cities, from Amazon Echo to smart dolls, surveillance capitalism’s imperatives, as well as its methods—marked by constant lying, concealment, and manipulation—have become ubiquitous. The good old days of solitary drunken stupor are now gone: even vodka bottles have become smart, offering internet connectivity. As for the smart rectal thermometers also discussed in the book, you probably don’t want to know. Let’s just hope your digital wallet is stocked with enough bitcoins to appease the hackers.

Zuboff’s book makes clear that the promises of “surveillance capitalists” are as sweet as their lobbying is ruthless. Tech companies, under the pompous cover of disrupting everything for everyone’s benefit, have developed a panoply of rhetorical and political tricks that insulate them from any pressure from below. It helps, of course, that the only pressure coming from below is usually the one directed at the buttons and screens of their data-sucking devices.

Had Donald Trump not been elected president—reportedly by that accidental data wizard of Steve Bannon, his hapless colleagues at Cambridge Analytica, and a bunch of Russians who managed to use Facebook as it was always intended to be used—the power of Silicon Valley might have remained a niche topic: good for nerdy Twitter banter on the renegade think-tank circuit but pretty useless for anything else.

Zuboff stepped into this global conversation five years ago, just as the first signs of discontent about the power of Big Tech began to bubble up. Silicon Valley was no stranger to criticism, but Zuboff was no ordinary critic. One of the first female professors to receive tenure at Harvard Business School, she has also worked as a columnist for Fast Company and Businessweek, two bastions of techno-optimism not exactly known for anti-capitalist sentiment. If members of the establishment were beginning to bash Silicon Valley, something, it seemed, was truly rotten in the digital kingdom. What was it?


While Zuboff’s use of the phrase “surveillance capitalism” first appeared in 2014, the origins of her critique date further back. They can be traced to the late 1970s, when she began studying the impact of information technology on the workplace—a forty-year project that, in addition to leading to several books and articles, has also inundated her with utopian hopes and bitter disappointments. The mismatch between the possible and the real has framed the intellectual context in which Zuboff—previously cautiously optimistic about both capitalism and technology—constructed her theory of surveillance capitalism, the darkest and most dystopian tool in her intellectual arsenal to date.

The depressing conclusions of her latest book are a far cry from what Zuboff was saying just a decade ago. As late as 2009, she argued that the likes of Amazon, eBay, and Apple were “releas[ing] massive quantities of value by giving people what they wanted on their own terms in their own space.” Zuboff arrived at this sunny diagnosis via her overarching analysis of how information technology was changing society; in this respect, she was one of a cohort of thinkers to argue that a new era—some called it “post-industrial,” others “post-Fordist”—was upon us.

It is from within that analysis—and the initial positive expectations it engendered—that Zuboff’s current critique of surveillance capitalism has emerged. It’s also why her latest tome often ventures, in content and language alike, into the turf of the melodramatic: Zuboff, together with the entire American business-managerial establishment, besotted with the promises of the New Economy, had hoped that something very different was in the offing.

Her first book, In the Age of the Smart Machine, appeared to much acclaim in 1988. In it, Zuboff laid out a conceptual apparatus and a set of questions that would resurface in all her subsequent writings. Drawing on years of ethnographic work in industrial and office settings, the book painted an ambiguous future. Information technology, argued Zuboff, might exacerbate the worst features of automation, strip workers of their autonomy, and condemn them to undignified tasks. But when used wisely, it might have the opposite effect: boosting workers’ capacities for abstract and imaginative thinking and reversing the deskilling process decried by many Marxist critics of work under capitalism.

Stitched together by information technology, modern enterprises, in Zuboff’s account, had to choose between “automating” or “informating.” The latter was her term for their novel ability to gather data—the “electronic text”—related to computer-mediated work. Under the prior era of Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management, such data was gathered manually, through observation and time-motion studies. By extracting workers’ tacit knowledge about the work process, managers, abetted by engineers, could rationalize it, dramatically lowering costs and raising living standards.

Thanks to advances in information technology, the writing of the electronic text was becoming cheap and ubiquitous. Were this text made available to workers, it might even undermine the foundation of managerial control: the assumption that the manager knows best. The electronic text begat what Zuboff, following Michel Foucault, described as “panoptical power.” Wedded to authoritarian practices of the earlier, heavily centralized workplace, this power was likely to entrench existing hierarchies; managers would hide behind numbers and rule remotely instead of risking the ambiguity of personal communication. Amplified by workplace democracy and egalitarian rules of access to the electronic text, however, this power might enable workers to challenge managers’ interpretations of their own activities and grab some institutional power for themselves.

In the Age of the Smart Machine, a book about the future of work and also, inevitably, about its past, was remarkably silent about capitalism. Its extensive bibliography aside, this ambitious tome of nearly five hundred pages mentions the word “capitalism” only once—in a quotation by Max Weber. This seems odd, given that Zuboff was hardly an apologist for the firms that she studied. She harbored no illusions about the authoritarian nature of the modern workplace, rarely a place for workers’ self-realization, and she delighted in bashing self-obsessed and power-hungry managers.

Despite such occasional critical notes, Zuboff trained her analytical lens on the institutional conflicts over knowledge and its role in perpetuating or undermining organizational hierarchies. Private property, class, the ownership of the means of production—the stuff of earlier conflicts related to work—were mostly excluded from her framework. This was by design rather than oversight. The goal of the study, after all, was to understand the future of the workplace mediated by information technology. Zuboff’s ethnographic approach was simply better suited to interviewing managers and workers about what drove them apart than to sketching out the economic imperatives that connected each enterprise to the whole of the global economy. So the smart machine of Zuboff’s imagining operated largely outside the invisible constraints that capitalism imposed on managers and owners.

While “capital” fared better—the book did mention it a dozen times—Zuboff did not see it, as many on the Marxist left are wont to do, as a social relation or an eternal antagonist of labor. Instead, she followed neoclassical economists in viewing it as machinery or money tied up in investments; “labor,” in its turn, was mostly treated as a physical activity. Even though Zuboff also mentioned the historical role of the trade unions, her readers would not necessarily grasp the antagonistic character of “labor” and “capital”—instead, they heard mostly about situational conflicts within individual workplaces, between workers and managers.

That was scarcely surprising: Zuboff was no Marxist. In addition, she was an aspiring professor at Harvard Business School. However, her advocacy for more equal and dignified workplaces suggested that she might be, at least on some issues, a fellow traveler to leftist causes. What set her apart from the more radical voices in these debates was her continued insistence on the ambiguous effects of information technology. The choice between “automating” and “informating” was not just an analytical byproduct of her framework or a mere rhetorical prop. Rather, she presented it as an actual, existential choice facing modern firms struggling with information technology.

Such binary choices—between “distributed capitalism” and “managerial capitalism,” and between “advocacy-oriented capitalism” and “surveillance capitalism”—would also animate Zuboff’s later books. But even at this early stage, it was unclear whether she was justified in making the analytical leap from observing, based on ethnographic work, that some of the firms under study did face the choice between “informating” and “automating,” to the broader conclusion that the external conditions of modern and increasingly high-tech capitalism universalized that choice for all firms, representing a new juncture in capitalist development itself.

Accepted at face value, the possibility of a real rather than postulated choice between “automating” and “informating” undermined the traditional critiques of capitalism as a system of structural (and hence inevitable) exploitation or deskilling. In Zuboff’s new digital era, a nimble and harmonious alliance between workers and managers could allow clever, enlightened firms to unlock the emancipatory power of “informating.”

Here we could glimpse the broader contours of Zuboff’s approach to capitalism: its ills, some of which she was happy to acknowledge, were not the unavoidable byproduct of systemic forces, such as the pursuit of profitability. Rather, they were the avoidable consequence of particular organizational arrangements, which, while having their uses in earlier eras, could now be made obsolete by information technology. This hopeful conclusion was derived almost entirely from observing capitalist firms, as capitalism itself—viewed as a historical structure, not as a mere aggregation of economic actors—was mostly absent from the analysis.



Capitalism’s New Clothes | Evgeny Morozov

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