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Surveillance Capitalism Won’t be Benign

July 21st, 2019 by dk

Sociologist Shoshana Zuboff describes our modern economy as “surveillance capitalism.” She chillingly explains how all the free stuff we enjoy isn’t really free at all.

“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data, fed into … ‘machine intelligence’ … that anticipates what you will do now, soon, and later.” The goal is to automate us.

Have you used “auto suggest” while typing on your phone? This is what being automated feels like — efficient, empowering, almost endearing. Our phone magically suggests a word without requiring us to type all its letters — how cool is that?

Trouble is, we don’t type enough to provide a large enough dataset for the algorithm to make reliable suggestions. So the machine learning protocols collect typing done by others as well — others who resemble you. Once the line between resemblance and replication begins to blur, you’ve been automated.

Zuboff’s term doesn’t strike fear into people’s souls, because “surveillance” for most Westerners has been benign and ineffectual. We snuck back into the house after curfew as teenagers. We learn where police set up their speed traps. We think we know when (and how) we’re being watched.

But these emerging surveilling forces may not be benevolent. The watchful eye isn’t similar to a concerned parent, or even a “big brother.” Think instead of Santa Claus, without the gifts and the fatherly wink. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good.

You never get to see the list, much less whether anyone checked it twice. But it’s out there. It’s growing, and it’s being brokered beyond our view. We’re told this profile of us resides “in the cloud.” That makes it sound mythical. We shrug it all off as harmless. We don’t write or share or view anything that would embarrass us, so we have nothing to fear, right? Right?

At some point, these secret algorithms will know us better than we know ourselves. That’s the payday investors are imagining — when the behavioral data anticipate what we will do next. Those who control those data can shape what we will do next — “auto suggest” — to maximize their sales or profits.

The data being harvested are more than what you type and share and watch. It can track every side-glance on your device, where your keystrokes slow while you ponder, which names or faces make your heart rate quicken. It knows which songs fit which of your moods. It can hear you when you sing along.

Surveillance capitalists “extract predictive value from the exclamation points,” in Zuboff’s words, “from how you walk — not merely where you walk.”

Once we accept our automated selves, a new destiny awaits. Forces “in the cloud” can automate our communities, creating “smart” cities connected with “smart” grids that will provide us power and transportation, food and water.

We were offered fun games and useful search engines and easy social networks. Nobody asked us for money. Instead, they sought to replicate and then seize our identity and autonomy. That exchange was never clear. Its consequences will be.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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