Taamara de Silva reviews the impact of surveillance capitalism on economies

Major technological advancements coupled with increasing interconnectivity of the digital economy have altered the societal landscape drastically. And the private sector has come under increased scrutiny for mining users’ information to predict and shape their behaviour.

In addition, exhaustive interpretations of conscious and unconscious behavioural patterns into datasets and algorithms have revolutionised how businesses sell their products. Meanwhile, the manufacturing economy has been automated while big data and AI call the shots in the modern economy.

After the dot-com bubble burst, Google decided to use leftover data from users’ online searches and browsing – also known as ‘digital exhaust.’ This data would be analysed for predictive patterns that could match advertisements to specific users and influence decisions, for example.

And a game changing zero cost resource – surveillance capitalism – was born.

Today, we live in a world where every product is ‘smart’ and ‘personalised.’ However, we don’t realise the harsh truth that personalisation is exploited by large corporations that go to great lengths to monetise and even intimate our personal moments such as wedding proposals or miscarriages, and direct us to certain locations or coax us to act in certain ways.

Larry Page has reportedly said Google should know what people want and tell them before they ask questions. Massive amounts of data are extracted every day, beginning with browsing histories to personal emails, buying patterns, comments and even ‘likes’ on social media.

It’s apparent that our privacy is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

In 2018, it was revealed that data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles was mined by Cambridge Analytica. By analysing the psychographic profiles of people, the company delivered direct messages in support of political campaigns – most notably, Donald Trump’s election victory and the Brexit vote.

Facebook came under immense pressure with founder Mark Zuckerberg taking responsibility and initiating corrective measures.

This followed former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya’s revelation that users are being programmed without realising it. Expressing “tremendous guilt” about the social media platform he helped build, Palihapitiya stated that “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

Similarly, Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s far-reaching mass internet and communication systems surveillance programmes sent ripples through society. This was how the Western world kept tabs on its masses.

Initially, we thought of digital services as free but today, surveillance capitalists think of us as free. There is also a term for it – ‘human natural resources’!

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff examines the unprecedented power of surveillance, and the pursuit of powerful corporations to predict and control our behaviour. She highlights four key features in the logic of surveillance capitalism, explicitly following four identified by Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google.

This concept shifts from the initial focus on individual users (self-optimisation) to populations such as smart cities and eventually, society as a whole.

What’s comically convenient is that it occurs in the form of personalised optimisation and customisation, which becomes the basic justification for surveillance. For instance, Google may suggest restaurants for dinner based on the knowledge of users’ locations, budgets, food preferences and even portion sizes. Does the user follow through or choose otherwise?

When Pokémon Go debuted in 2016, it was perceived as a harmless foray into the world of augmented reality. Virtual figures of Pokémon characters are placed around local areas, and users are required to physically go and capture them to score points.

Little did people know that corporations would lure them into specific restaurants or malls where they would be enticed to spend, wine and dine. Essentially portrayed as a community building tool with health benefits, this was also a cute and colourful way to extract massive amounts of data and influence behaviour.

Zuboff states that Big Tech’s ultimate goal “is to automate us.” This chilling reality can be rephrased; if there were to be a perfect predictability model, optimal behaviour would equal optimal profits.

The question we should ask is whether big data and algorithms can replace the ‘free will’ for which our predecessors fought so hard to establish and preserve. When we voluntarily give up protected and private information, by using social media and the internet, we automatically expose ourselves to digital networks that penetrate and x-ray every corner of our lives.

We need to think about the kind of life we want to lead. Do we want to continue to turn ourselves over to total surveillance and human exploitation, thereby surrendering our freedom and dignity?