Surviving surveillance capitalism

Husnain Khan
Thursday, Feb 22, 2024

The shift from the labour-driven Industrial Revolution of the 16th century to the data-centric revolution of the 21st century marks a transformation where private data is meticulously monitored and analyzed to boost profits.

The absence of effective regulation by democratic leaders in digital information and communication domains leads to the widespread proliferation of surveillance practices in society.

In contemporary times, prominent entities in capitalism, including Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, have amassed significant influence within the digital domain. These corporations exert substantial control over the majority of platforms and mechanisms, facilitating information dissemination and communication.

Their main way of making money is by collecting vast amounts of data from users. They track everything you do, create a profile of you, and then use that information to manipulate your behaviour through access to personal information. Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard Business School calls this system surveillance capitalism and defines it as follows: “Surveillance capitalism refers to a new economic system that claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.”

Surveillance capitalism operates as a feedback loop between surveillance and capitalism. In traditional capitalism, wealth accumulation is the primary objective. However, surveillance capitalism takes this a step further by investing accumulated wealth in surveillance devices. These devices are used to manipulate individuals’ behaviour and emotions, ultimately driving greater profits for the companies involved. This manipulation reinforces the feedback loop, perpetuating the cycle of surveillance and profit generation.

In conventional economics, the principle of consumer sovereignty asserts that consumers, through their purchasing choices, determine the demand for goods and services, thus holding significant influence over what is produced and how it is produced. However, in today’s landscape, the prevalence of advertisements by corporate giants challenges the notion of consumer sovereignty.

These ads shape tastes and drive market activity, undermining the role of consumers in dictating demand. Consequently, the authenticity of consumer preferences becomes questionable, blurring the line between genuine desires and artificially constructed wants.

This shift undermines the assumption that greater production levels inherently lead to enhanced welfare, as the foundation of consumer choice becomes increasingly manipulated by external influences. In contrast to traditional capitalism, where value is generated through the production and exchange of goods and services, surveillance capitalism thrives on monitoring, analyzing, and manipulating human behaviour.

Big giants create ‘prediction products’ using private data, which they can then sell to potential buyers. These goods are meant to sway consumer decisions and behaviour. As a result, businesses can move beyond simply satisfying current consumer needs to anticipating and forming future demands and directing customer behaviour accordingly. This change encourages firms to continuously monitor, manipulate, and commodify their customers, in addition to raising issues about privacy and human liberty.

Nowadays, some of the top businesses in the globe are those that manage the data firehose’s faucets. Their consumer base exceeds that of the whole world, and even the smallest of their decisions have an impact on billions of people’s lives and means of subsistence. They are some of the most powerful beings on the earth, capable of deciding what we see and don’t see. They can therefore affect our opinions, guide our choices, and cause us to have second thoughts.

The pervasive nature of social media, personal data collection, and targeted advertising underscores the extent to which our daily lives are observable in the digitized realm. As Shoshana Zuboff has stated, “Surveillance capitalists have adeptly capitalized on a gap in social progress. Their swift advancement in profiting from surveillance has outpaced public comprehension and the subsequent development of laws and regulations to govern it.”

In an era dominated by information, both individual and collective existence are shaped and influenced by the flow of information. However, crucial questions arise: What knowledge is accessible? Who controls access to knowledge? Who decides who has access to knowledge, and who holds the power to make these decisions?

Regarding this, the European Parliament has enacted legislation to address digital privacy concerns, including the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA).

The Digital Markets Act is designed to regulate large online platforms or ‘gatekeepers’, ensuring fair online behaviour and promoting equitable opportunities for digital enterprises of varying sizes. Meanwhile, the Digital Services Act aims to enhance consumer empowerment by granting them greater control over the timing, sources, and types of targeted advertisements they encounter.

It is imperative to acknowledge that developing nations also require similar laws and regulations to shield their nations from such manipulations. These regulations are necessary not only in terms of consumerism but also to safeguard democracy, ensuring that the thoughts and opinions of their citizens are not manipulated by external forces. Such measures are crucial for maintaining the integrity of democratic processes and protecting the sovereignty of nations in the digital age.

The writer is a freelance contributor.