Feb 21st 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 1849. 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.



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

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.
Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."
Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.