The past 30 years have seen waves of information technology revolution. Web browsers, texting, smartphones and, most importantly, social media. Having digital connectivity to everyone seems as basic as the telephone, and has in fact replaced the telephone to a substantial extent.
It is difficult to judge what the implications of these changes are for society, but a book published last year did so with much success. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” by longtime Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, focuses on the new business model digital technologies enable — surveillance capitalism.
“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior.”
Aggregating our online communications, shopping and browsing, using it to predict what we might buy, and then selling that information to vendors who advertise and attempt to change our buying behavior is the stuff of dystopian novels.
To Zuboff, this represents the threat of soft totalitarianism. As she said in a 2019 interview, “It’s clear that surveillance capitalists have discovered that the most predictive sources of data are when they come in and intervene in our lives … in our real-time actions, to shape our action in a certain direction that aligns with the kind of outcomes they want to guarantee to their customers. That’s where they’re making their money. These are baldfaced interventions in the exercise of human autonomy, what I call the right to the future tense.”
This divides society into the watchers and the watched. The battle over who owns personal data will be a central one in the years and decades ahead.
Isaac Cheifetz, a Twin Cities executive recruiter, can be reached through catalytic1.com.