All about surveillance capitalism
Great power involves great responsibilities. This is an age-old saying that has been laid by many people throughout the years, including people like Voltaire, Winston Churchill and Stan Lee. But perhaps the phrase particularly points more towards the digital era where people's everyday thoughts, hopes and desires can be recorded and analysed by various technicians who often operate free of any democratic oversight.
While the matter is abundant on the internet, our attention is limited and a treasured resource. To use our attention as efficient as possible, tech companies have developed a new kind of capitalism, which accumulates behavioural data to bring advertisement technology to perfection. We call it surveillance capitalism.
And you are being tracked, right now! While you read this or while scrolling through anything over internet. As soon as you get on the internet, multiple parties track everything you are doing. We live in endless surveillance, and your online behaviour is used for targeted advertisement. But how did this happen and what is the cost our society has to pay? Online surveillance is ubiquitous: They know your location, search history, the installed apps on your phone, the websites you visit, and what you read and watch. They also monitor your social media posts, your private conversations, emails, what you buy, as well as all the metadata that comes with it and the list is endless.
But who are we exactly mean with “they”? It’s the surveillance capitalists. Companies which offer products and services to extract our behavioural user data and make predictions and modifications to our future behaviour.
Surveillance capitalists see your behaviour data as their proprietary and further use the information to feed machine intelligence to similar sophisticated prediction products. These prediction products are then traded on behavioural investments market places. The more data is fed into this new machine intelligence-based the more powerful are its prediction products.
For example, every online search creates more understandings about us. This information is then structured and fed to machine learning algorithms. When trained with enough data, these algorithms can give accurate predictions on what you are going to click on, based on your search input and past behaviour. The consequence is that if google search is used to explore a particular product, you will suddenly see fitting advertisements following you around the internet almost everywhere you go.
They simply professed our private experience to be theirs for the taking, for translation into data for their private ownership and their proprietary knowledge. The capitalist logic of growth works perfectly since information can be extracted with zero marginal cost. Their systems, which aim to modify our behaviour, are designed outside of our awareness and operate in the dark to maintain our ignorance. This data technology is turning the world into data. At its core is the continuous gathering of 'behavioural surplus' by big tech companies. This is the excess information retained from users’ online search and browsing history. When internet users specify a 'like' or a 'favourite' for a post online, when they are purchasing online or log onto an app, what time they make purchases, what music they play, what films they like, what political parties they vote for - every information is recorded. This data is then analysed for analytical patterns which could be coordinated with advertisements, after which products and services are targeted at the users. Tech companies then rapidly broadened the scope of their surveillance, finding new ways of obtaining more and more data. Camouflaged as personalisation of products, smart homes, smart phones, smart watches and smart cars have all been used to extract more behavioural data about users. While surveillance capitalism needs technology. Technology doesn’t need surveillance capitalism.
The consequence being, surveillance capitalists are incentivized to create even more addictive products following the model of the attention economy. Pull to refresh, countless feeds or push notifications are just the tip of the iceberg. More than 70 percent of the YouTube traffic is driven by recommendations. These recommendations are tilted towards the range of Crazy Town, including conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine and Bigfoot.
So, the predictive algorithm doesn’t show you what is best for you, but instead, what is in the economic interest of the platform benefactors. This debate goes way beyond the question of a free market economy, since the dispossession of knowledge and the behavioural manipulation of billions of people are a threat to democracy itself. Their business practices are revolutionizing on how society works and lead to significant social differences and spikes in depression among our youngest generation.
To control an evolving new form of capitalism is tough. We just started to understand how it even works and only came up with terminology for it. In the meantime, it’s spreading throughout the world like wildfire and is implemented and integrated by more companies and marketplaces every day.
Although it is not easy, there are still a couple of things you can do against it: Avoid their services when possible. You can also take a look at the data detox, which helps you find existing alternatives.