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 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "