Feb 12th 2019

A New Despotism in the Era of Surveillance Capitalism

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

 

There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity. 

I maintain that we have good reason to fear that the business model of commercial surveillance – pioneered by Google and adopted by Facebook, among others – is serving to undermine the foundations of our democracy. Shoshana Zuboff explains in her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capital (Public Affairs, 2019) that the system works by treating human experience as “free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvements, the rest are declared as proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior.”   

In effect, we are becoming the subject of a new insidious, subtle, and almost invisible form of subjugation that was foreseen with uncanny ability by Tocqueville in 1749. Over a hundred and seventy-five years ago, Tocqueville wrote: “The kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that has proceeded it in the world.” He goes on to describe the elevation of “an immense tutelary power … which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power, if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that.”  

In Time magazine’s January seventeenth article “I Mentored Mark Zuckerberg, But I Can’t Stay Silent” author Roger McNamee observes, “One of the best ways to manipulate attention is to appeal to outrage and fear, emotions that increase engagement. Facebook’s algorithms give users what they want, so each person’s News Feed becomes a unique and personal reality, a filter bubble that creates the illusion that most people the user knows believe the same things.” 

The notion of a bubble here is a useful one: central to the work of Jakob von Uexküll, an Estonian-born biologist and one of the fathers of biosemiotics, is the concept of the umwelt – or ‘surrounding-world’ – the ‘soap-bubble’ that each creature creates for itself and which constitutes their experiential world. The umwelt is composed of signs as bearers of meaning, and for each organism the umwelt is the whole of their reality. What distinguishes us as human beings is that our umwelt is not fixed, immobile, rigid, or static. One of the ways we can understand the effect of Facebook’s algorithms on its users is that the umwelt each user inhabits runs the danger of effectively shrinking: growing smaller and ever more calcified. In “How Facebook’s Algorithm Suppresses Content Diversity and How the Newsfeed Rules Your Clicks,” the author Zeynep Tufekci asserts that researchers were able to definitively conclude that, by a measurable amount, Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm reduces a user’s exposure to “…ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content...”  By assuring that we are exposed only to that which we are likely to approve of and assent to, our umwelt – or social reality – is that much more diminished and homogenized. 

Facebook’s business model has far-reaching implications, especially in terms of our ability to empathize with others – others who may not be like, or think like, ourselves. This had devastating results in Myanmar where Facebook became a tool for ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. While it certainly may not have been its intention, Facebook has become a “forum for tribalism” promoting a “simplistic version of ‘community’” while arguably “harming democracy, science and public health” – as Siva Vaidhyanathan suggests in Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018). 

Much of my research has shown that there is a close relationship between empathy and our ability to creatively reconstruct the umwelt of the other. While one cannot share his or her umwelt – each of us remains in our own soap-bubble, as it were – we can participate in a common umwelt, which in many ways is purportedly the stated goal of social media. It is ironic that Facebook, which claims to prize connectivity above all, has in fact, contributed to producing the opposite result – where each of us fixed in a vapid and hardened bubble of isolation. 

In the face of an American government that is increasingly retreating from its responsibilities, we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree, Facebook is like Tocqueville’s ‘tutelary’s power’ which “everyday … renders the employment of free will less useful, and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space, and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen.” These companies do not simply want to automate information: as Zuboff observes, “the goal now is to automate us… to produce ignorance by circumventing individual awareness and thus eliminate any possibility of self-determination.” 

Facebook’s business model represents a new insidious form of subjugation that does not tyrannize, but as Vaidhyanathan observes, “it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” 

Facebook has contributed its share to the deterioration of epistemic norms and has helped to usher in the era of so-called post-truth. The motivation behind this disdain for truth as such, has always been the same – namely, it serves the bottom line. As McNamee puts it: “on Facebook, information and disinformation look the same; the only difference is that disinformation generates more revenue, so it gets better treatment.” 

Over a two-year period preceding the 2016 election, one hundred and twenty-six million Americans saw Russian-backed content. Facebook was at best reckless in the rampant and deliberate spread of disinformation through fake Russian accounts; which is to say that by allowing the proliferation of fake news, Facebook incontrovertibly helped Donald Trump to become the President of the United States. Facebook has provided fertile ground for the spread of grossly irresponsible conspiracy theories and “hopelessly inaccurate viral posts.” 

Like many others, McNamee suggests that users should have control over their own data and metadata – as if data ownership is the solution to the scourge of surveillance capitalism. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to ask the more elementary question of whether such data should exist at all. As Zuboff observes “It’s like negotiating how many hours a day a seven-year-old should be allowed to work, rather than contesting the fundamental legitimacy of child labor.” Surveillance capitalism represents a new form of despotism, one that is harming our capacity for individual autonomy in order that behavioral data can continue to be generated unimpeded, supplying markets and the advertisers that are Google’s and Facebook’s real customers. 

We are becoming the kind of solipsistic and atomistic society that Tocqueville foresaw, “an enumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose … each of them, withdrawn, and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others… As for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them.” Alexis de Tocqueville warned us that oppression may take forms which are gentle, quiet, calm, but nonetheless, inimical to genuine freedom. To adequately respond to the problem will require more than demanding greater privacy or data ownership – it will involve a radical questioning of our basic assumptions, and a new understanding of what democracy means and entails in the age of capitalistic surveillance.   

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
Apr 1st 2020
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."