The classical Fordist perspective initiated a move towards a new form of capitalism, that is mass production (Zuboff, 2015). Now, mechanisation and automation have enabled human labour to be substituted for machine capabilities that enable continuity and control (Zuboff, 2015). But, the same is not the case with Information Technologies (ITs), with ITs the machine doesn’t only impact on the object (any entity that has gone through a system of computer-mediation/textualisation) but it informs on it. It is this informating process that Shoshana Zuboff says is creating a possibility of surveillance. Because, the object then becomes “visible, knowable and shareable” (Zuboff 2015: 67).
As indicated above, the informating process of Information Systems (IS) coupled with a push towards a sharing economy has led to what Zuboff (2015) calls an emergent logic of accumulation — Surveillance Capitalism. Humans have found ways to make technology not only automate task but to reveal human behaviour. As described in the introduction above, IS has been harnessed to generate meta-data that informs on users. The move towards the narrow business model of advertising revenue is causing big tech companies to go against the social contract of trust when it comes to handling user’s data.
Otherwise, IS-enabled ‘disruptive’ business models such as Uber and Airbnb rely on the “sharing economy” for its business to prosper, and not just that it also relies on the implicit social contract of trust. For instance, how do you as an Uber driver agree to pick up a stranger? Or how do you as an Airbnb homeowner agree to host an unknown guest? But, the questions are “who is sharing what with you? and who determines that?”. IS-enabled business models rely heavily on data generated by the electronically mediated transactions. These vast amounts of data are then being stored, manipulated, analysed and sold to advertisers or used to create more personalised products for their users. The problem with this also is that the companies involved in such big data moves are doing it for their selfish gains and are going against the tacit laws of capitalism where social democratic values were upended. Ed Snowden revealed to the world that the NSA was permeating ‘domestic spying’ where data sources such as emails, phone calls, google searches, receipts, itineraries are being stored and analysed.
To the NSA, “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target” a reported speech from one NSA official as cited in Zuboff (2014). What we see is that many of such spying operations were done in secrecy and this brings to mind the idea behind Bentham’s Panopticon which was popularised by Michel Foucault (1975) as cited in the Guardian puts it this way “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.”. In order to further their mission of surveillance, they gravitate towards the accumulation of data which in this case would be the big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber.
A rare picture of how the Government (e.g NSA) and other big data/ tech companies gravitate to the top to have a god-view of your activities (aka Surveillance)
These companies who were supposed to be fighting for the liberation of citizens are benefitting from the act of surveillance. Zuboff (2014) calls it a military-information complex — a convergence of private and public expertise in the control and analysis of information camouflaged by a forest of excuses. We are made to believe by the big tech companies that this move towards big data is as a result of the “unstoppable” nature of technological advancements. However, this analysis is being carried out without the user’s consent, who happened to be the owners of the data. Users on such services as Google forfeit their rights to their data because, it becomes randomised and aggregated with other user’s data, hence, one can’t lay claim to it.
Uber has broken the laws of mutation as defined by Joseph Schumpeter because it is operating without the discipline of consumers’ need and institutional form. Zuboff concludes by saying Uber is an “immature disruption”. We know that these possibilities of surveillance are real because the PRISM program organised by NSA saw them partner with big tech companies so they could access pre-encrypted data from Skype calls, emails etc. In return, the NSA “paid millions of dollars to cover the costs of major internet companies” involved in this program. Also, she argues that this new logic of accumulation (Surveillance capitalism) is causing a breach in democratic principles, personal control and social trust.
Effects of surveillance could be as high as early death as shown in Zuboff’s piece. It leads to stress and conformity; self-censorship. Therefore, as a society, we need to advocate for reciprocal rights and obligations long associated with strong market democracies. That is the only way by which we can “compel ‘immature disruptions” into the disciplines of a new social contract”. Genuine mutations unlock new levels of prosperity for everyone (investors, executives and the wider society).
This piece concludes by showing the different ways in which IS-enabled business models such as Uber can lead to possibilities of surveillance and associated impacts for society such as Government surveillance schemes (e.g PRISM). Also, talked about how to protect ourselves by enforcing a new social contract and relying on our democracy.
Zuboff, S., (2014). The New Military-Informational Complex and What You Should Wear. http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/my-new-article-on-the-weapons-of-mass-detection/ Posted, 13. February 2014.
Zuboff, S., (2015). Disruption’s Tragic Flaw. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Feuilleton 23. http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/the-digital-debate/shoshana-zuboff-on-the-sharing-economy-13500770.html Posted, 23. March 2015.