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Big Tech Stole Our Data While Democracy Slept: Shoshana Zuboff on the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Web ExclusiveMarch 01, 2019
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Corporations have created a new kind of marketplace out of our private human experiences. That is the conclusion of an explosive new book that argues big tech platforms like Facebook and Google are elephant poachers, and our personal data is ivory tusks. We continue our interview with Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our interview with Harvard Business professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff, who wrote the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

I wanted to go, Shoshana, to the blurb that was written by—highly recommending your book, by Naomi Klein, who wrote, among other things, This Changes Everything and No Logo. She writes, “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense.”

So, first, for those who haven’t seen Part 1 of this conversation, explain what’s at stake; what surveillance capitalism is; how you feel, as you said in the first part, you’re not searching Google, Google is searching you; and what you can do about it.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: All right. Well, surveillance capitalism is a further evolution of capitalism that follows in the old pattern of taking things that live outside the market, subordinating them to the market dynamic as commodities that can be sold and purchased—but with a dark twist. Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims our private human experience as a free source of raw material for its own production processes. It translates our experience into behavioral data. Those behavioral data are then combined with its advanced computation capabilities, what people today refer to as AI, machine intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: Artificial intelligence.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Artificial Intelligence. Out of that black box come predictions about our behavior, what we will do now, soon and later. Turns out there are a lot of businesses that want to know what we will do in the future. And so, these have constituted a new kind of marketplace, a marketplace that trades exclusively in behavioral futures, in our behavioral futures. That’s where surveillance capitalists make their money. That’s where the big pioneers of this economic logic, like Google and Facebook, have become so wealthy, by selling predictions of our behavior, first to online targeted advertisers, and now, of course, these business customers range across the entire economy, no longer confined to that original context of online targeted advertising.

AMY GOODMAN: So how do you protect yourself?

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: So how do we protect ourselves? All right. First thing, all of this has rooted and flourished in the last two decades, while democracy slept. And the question is: How did they get away with it? There are a bunch of answers to that question; I go into about 16 explanations for that. But there are a couple that are right at the top of the list, that we should talk about.

One is our ignorance, because key to this whole methodology, and why it’s called surveillance capitalism, is that all of this is conducted in secret. All of this is conducted through the social relations of the one-way mirror, ergo surveillance. The vast amounts of capital that have been accumulated here are trained to create these systems in a way that keeps us ignorant. Specifically, the data scientists write about their methods in a way that brags about the fact that these systems bypass our awareness, so that they bypass our rights to say yes or no, I want to participate or I don’t want to participate, I want to contest or I don’t want to contest, I want to fight or I don’t want to fight. All of that is bypassed. We are robbed of the right to combat, because we are engineered into ignorance.

So, what Naomi says is, first of all, if we are going to defend ourselves, we have to start by understanding what the heck this is. We have to start by naming it. Naming is power. Understanding is power. Getting past this ignorance is power. That’s the first step. Once we understand that we’re dealing with an economic logic, not digital technology—digital technology is perfectly easy to imagine without surveillance capitalism; impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without digital technology. So we’re talking about the puppet master here, not the puppet. The digital is merely the puppet. Surveillance capitalism is the puppet master.

So, once we name and understand that this is an economic logic, then it’s our job, as citizens of democratic societies, to use our new understanding to summon the resources of our democratic institutions, to insist that our elected officials now go beyond naming to actually interrupt and outlaw these practices. Do we really want to be living in a society where the dominant form of capitalism is one that makes its money by trading in human futures? Because the consequence of that kind of business logic is on a direct collision course with democracy, in two ways.

First, it must take on human autonomy. It must—it must cast human autonomy as its enemy, because human autonomy means friction. It’s harder to take our experience, it’s harder to influence our behavior for the very best sources of predictive behavioral data—it’s harder to do that if we know what’s going on and we find ways to resist. So, it is against autonomy. It is against individual sovereignty and our decision rights over our own experience. That eats away at democracy from below, because we cannot have flourishing democratic societies without individuals who understand themselves as a moral center of critical thinking and autonomous action. That’s number one.

Number two, it assaults democracy from above, because it means that we enter the 21st century with a new kind of institutional paradigm that introduces extreme inequalities of knowledge. Under the aegis of private surveillance capital, we have institutionalized private companies with asymmetries of knowledge unlike anything we’ve seen in human history. They know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them. Their knowledge about us is used for others’ profit gain, not used to actually solve our problems and improve our lives. So this is a huge asymmetry of knowledge, which also gives rise to a huge asymmetry of power, because from great knowledge comes great power. In this case, the power to actually modify, influence our behavior in directions that are consistent with their commercial purposes. This is a pernicious, corrosive effect on democracy.

By the way, we saw these same methods being used by Cambridge Analytica with those revelations a year ago, with only a tiny difference. All they did was take these same everyday, routine methods of surveillance capitalism, pivot them just a couple of degrees toward political outcomes rather than commercial outcomes, showing that they could use our data to intervene and influence our behavior, our real-world behavior, and our real-world thinking and feeling, in order to change political outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who don’t quite understand what the Cambridge Analytica scandal was, explain.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Cambridge Analytica was a private company owned by the plutocrat Robert Mercer, who also funded the Donald Trump campaign. This company learned how to commandeer Facebook data at scale. They purchased access to Facebook data at scale, so that they could use these methodologies of surveillance capitalism to understand individual personality types and tailor subliminal cues and messages to individuals in ways that would manipulate their behavior, manipulate their political attitudes, and actually try to influence their real-world political action and voting behavior.

We know that they were very successful. The forensics are still being explored. We don’t know if we will ever understand completely every aspect of their influence. But we know that they had tremendous influence both in the Brexit vote of 2016 and in the U.S. presidential elections. And we know this because of a whistleblower who was the key architect of this strategy, a young man named Chris Wylie, who, for all of his bad deeds, had the courage to become our civilization’s prodigal son by finally fessing up to what he had done and trying to atone for it by explaining it to our public, to all the peoples of the world, so that we could be put on alert.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Eric Schmidt. In 2010, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt spoke at the Washington Ideas Forum about Google’s future vision.

ERIC SCHMIDT: With your permission, you give us more information. If you give us information about who some of your friends are, we can probably use some of that information—again, with your permission—to improve the quality of your searches. … One of the things that eventually happens, in that proceeding line of reasoning, is we don’t need you to type at all, because we know where you are, with your permission, we know where you’ve been, with your permission. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Respond, as Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt lays it out, the do-no-evil Google.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Well, I took about a month off from these seven years that I was writing this book to read every manual that every great magician had ever written about their skill. And it turns out that one of the pivotal skills of a great magician is the idea of misdirection. You direct people’s attention in one way so that you can perform your trick with the other hand.

So, what you’ve just heard here is a bit of artful misdirection: “with your permission,” “with your permission.” That is a cynical lie, because “with your permission” means that you click on that “I agree.” That “I agree” is a box that we all click on because we have no choice, because for everyday, effective social participation, we have no choice other than to march ourselves through the supply chains that are the very channels through which Google and other surveillance capitalists scrape our private experience and turn it into behavioral data. So we have to play in their gardens in order to just get through our day. So, the idea that we are giving permission is one of the big lies. This is a little piece of kabuki here. I’ll be the sun, you be the moon. I’ll say I give you—you know, you give me permission; you say, “Yeah, I agree.” But we all know that it’s a lie.

Eric Schmidt has been quoted with another wonderful piece of misdirection, when confronted about the fact that turns out that security agencies were getting access to Google search data for some of their own tasks. One of the statements that he made—I think it was about a year earlier than that statement—he said everybody should understand that, quote, “search engines do retain.” Another brilliant piece of misdirection. Search engines do not retain. Surveillance capitalism retains data, not search engines. This is another way in which we must separate the puppet from the puppet master, which these guys constantly want to confuse, because they want us to believe this is the only way the digital future could be, and therefore you’ve got to hunker down and you’ve got to get used to it. You have to resign yourself to this inevitability. That is a lie that we must confront and we must resist.

The good news about this, Amy, is that our societies have learned in the past how to successfully confront a rogue capitalism, the excesses of a raw destructive capitalism, and bring it to heel and tether it to the principles of a democratic society and tether it to the real interests of people. We did it to end the Gilded Age. We did it during the Great Depression. We did it in the postwar era. We summoned democracy, with new law, with new regulatory regimes, with new forms of collective action. Back then, it was collective bargaining and trade unions, the right to strike. But we summoned democracy to stop the violent excesses of capitalism and turn it into some kind of equilibrium, however imperfect, that we could call market democracy. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would the building blocks of that be? In fact, I want to couple that with, and I know you have to go, but how you protect yourself, because you now know so much about how surveillance capitalism works. What you do?

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Well, you know, I do what most people who are even a little bit informed do. You know, I have something that blocks ads, that blocks tracking, a browser that can scramble my location, and, you know, these various kinds of things. But, you know, this stuff really makes me angry, Amy, because essentially what we’re doing with this stuff is we are finding ways to hide in our own lives. And this makes me furious, that as citizens of the 21st century, as citizens of a democratic society, we have to find ways to disguise ourselves. We have some of our best young artists, who are coming out with, you know, fabrics and camouflage that you put on your face or put on your body, so that when you’re out on the streets you’re protected from facial recognition and voice recognition. This is intolerable. This is not the world I want my children to grow up in.

AMY GOODMAN: Which goes to this issue of this kind of surveillance policing leads to self-policing, the squelching of creativity, of a self-expression.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: The self-policing, the chilling effect, as scholars call it, the self-censorship that we’re familiar with online. But now what we’re seeing is we’re self-censoring in our real lives, in the real world, because anyone could have the camera on their phone running. As—

AMY GOODMAN: As we now—

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: As a good example, with Senator Feinstein, that were able to get the camera running.

AMY GOODMAN: As the kids were confronting her to support a Green New Deal.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: As the kids were confronting her to support the Green New Deal. But for most of us, that is an intolerable invasion, that we can be recorded anywhere. And this is happening to young people all throughout their lives. So, young people have no place where they can be off stage, where they can be private and be nurturing and developing the inner resources that we need for the capacity of moral autonomy and individual judgment that is so necessary to a democratic society.

AMY GOODMAN: Which goes back to this whole issue of how do societies protect themselves, because you hold out great hope.


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we say the word “regulation,” but what does that mean? What has to be taken apart here?

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: All right. Well, first of all, it’s not going to be the same regulation that worked a century ago. Right? A century ago, for example, we confronted child labor. We didn’t say, “All right, let’s have a negotiation. A 7-year-old can only work in a factory three hours a day.” We didn’t do that. We said, “No child labor, period. Those children are at home, and they go to school.”

Today, we can’t be talking about things like data ownership. That’s like saying 7-year-olds work three hours a day. Data ownership is after the horse is out of the barn, because so much of these data should not exist in the first place. These are data that are illegitimately taken from our lives, without—despite what Eric Schmidt says, without our permission, because it’s done without our knowledge, so we couldn’t possibly give our permission.

So, we have to have the new generation, that new century, of regulation, that interrupts these specific mechanisms, that says private human experience is out of bounds, is off base, it is not available to be the next virgin wood of capitalism. Private human experience is essential for a democratic society. It cannot be turned into a commodity. That’s number one.

We have to interrupt, and even outlaw, behavioral futures markets, because the consequence of a business that sells behavioral futures is a business that is on a collision course with democracy. There can be no free society in a society dominated by a capitalism that must take our behavior in order to sell predictions of our behavior for the benefit of business customers.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you shocked by how little politicians understand? A younger generation will understand more the capacity of the digital world and how it can help you and how it can hurt you. But the lack of even understanding? Those that are being regulated—the Facebooks, the Googles, the Amazons of the world—when they are faced with any possible regulation, they write the regulations.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: I know that seems a little discouraging. You know, I learned as a young student—I used to sit in on Milton Friedman’s classes to figure out what he was teaching people at University of Chicago, when I was an undergrad. And even as a 17-year-old, I heard Friedman talking about the idea that public opinion today is legislation in 20 years. So there’s a lag. Let’s say that if we can change public opinion today, it’s not going to take us 20 years to get to these new laws and new regulations, but, you know, it’s going to take us a few years. It’s not an overnight deal. So, but having that kind of perspective, honestly, Amy, I was not surprised by the sheer just blundering cluelessness of our lawmakers as they interviewed Zuckerberg and other surveillance capitalists.

We have work to do. But this is work that can be done. Our elected officials can be educated. If they don’t want to get educated, we can elect different people. This is stuff that we can fix. I do believe that. You know, even into the 20th century, we still had courts, judges who were making decisions that completely sided with the industrialists, whom we have now renamed as “robber barons.” In time, all of these actions are reinterpreted as history shakes out, and democracy finally finds its way through to the light. And that’s what I believe—that’s the process that we’re in now. This thing is 20 years old. We’re at the beginning, not the end. We name it, we tame it. That’s the work now, to reignite our democracy, wake it up for this work of the 21st century.

AMY GOODMAN: Shoshana Zuboff, I want to thank you so much for being with us, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, author of the new book, just out, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org.

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