The path to hell is paved with surveillance capitalism

It might seem a little bit tin-foil-hatty, however, there are people you’ve never met who have access to personal information about yourself and your family – the detail and granularity of which would make a Stasi officer positively foam at the mouth with excitement.

Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ takes the reader on a tour of how exactly we ended up in a world where our portal to the internet is controlled and operated by an advertising company. Weird thought, right? Not exactly the vision of the researchers at CERN seeking to communicate more efficiently – “Yeah absolutely Tim I would love to see the data from the particle collider, I just can’t seem to find it on my screen in among all of the pop-ups trying to sell me orthopedic shoes and a fancy new self cleaning whiteboard.’

‘Surveillance Capitalism’ includes a compelling exploration of ‘Behavioral Surplus’, the data we generate – the data about our lives – when we walk, ask for directions, speak in our most intimately private environments or use pretty well any app to do pretty well anything… This data is the fuel for Big Tech’s business models – hence why Google heavily subsidized the cost of Android phones in order to equip themselves with the apparatus for gathering Behavioural Surplus. Rather than factories producing more than the cost of their workers and materials yielding productive surplus, Surveillance Companies take the data surrounding your life and use it to shape your experience, with refined products, in a feedback loop driving us ever closer to their vision of the future. Not yours. Not the users’. Theirs.

The following probably sounds very familiar to you in some form or iteration:

  • Following one’s casual browsing of (pretty well any of the well trafficked) sites within the internet…
  • Intrusive piece of targeted political or commercial advertising (on the basis of past browsing) are prompted and appear in your sensory realm
  • The user is left with a feeling along the lines of ‘I didn’t agree to have my browsing of gifts for my wife to be represented on every other web page I ever visit! I didn’t agree to any of this!’.

Well, you did and you didn’t…

The deliberately and expressly incomprehensible terms and conditions of your usage of the service, the T&Cs, are both alarmingly and very much questionably enforced by courts. With some estimates of how long it would take one to read all privacy relevant T&Cs at 76 work days each year, it’s obviously not viable to ask consumers to do this. So what on Earth is to be made of the judicial precedent being set by treating user’s as though they ought to do and actually have done so?

Well, it completely undermines the notion of meaningful consent along with the corpus of established co-operational procedure that is embodied in contract law.

Similarly, regulators and law-makers have better things to be doing with their time than reading and analyzing myriad manifestos of deliberate obfuscation. It’s also a pretty big stretch to imagine that implications of such contracts would be well understood by government… cf. Senator we run ads.

All this leaves the user in the rather uncomfortable position of essentially either biting the cost of surrendering one’s autonomy over a basic right to privacy OR entirely opting out of what are ever increasingly essential tools in the modern world. Case in point: You’ve never heard anyone say ‘Oh I don’t know actually, let me Ecosia it’.

[… live post, more pending …]

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