THE LATEST NEW CAPITALISM: SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM

February 18, 2019 By Joseph P. Farrell

Mr. D.W. sent along this article from the Frankfurter Allgemeinezeitung. It's by Shoshana Zuboff, and it's lengthy, and very important, especially if you're concerned as I am about the growing corporatization of the surveillance state. She calls it "surveillance capitalism", and she's right. It's the latest in monetizing things that, just a few decades ago, we never would have considered monetizing. Consider: in the last decade or so since hurricane Katrina, we've seen the emergence of "weather derivatives" and "disaster capitalism", so why not "surveillance capitalism." The problem, or rather, just one of the problems is, as I've pointed out on occasion, is that with corporations being granted the status of persons in law (while, incidentally, unborn babies are apparently not), one is dealing with entities that are granted personhood sovereignty, but unlike the rest of us, they cannot die: how does one exercise capital punishment on a corporation for, say, causing the deaths of several people? One can't, one can only "sue". There's another problem with corporations, in that none of them enshrine, in their corporate charters, anything close to a "Bill of Rights." The rest of us are just "human resources" to be consumed and monetized.

And with that idea, we come to the heart of Zuboff's article:

The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism

The goal of monetizing data is to change behavior and with that, to make people want to buy more of your smart products, which leads to more data, which leads to more large scale behavior modification, and so on, in an endless vicious circle:

The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. The sports apparel company Under Armour is reinventing its products as wearable technologies.  The CEO wants to be like Google. He says, "If it all sounds eerily like those ads that, because of your browsing history, follow you around the Internet, that's exactly the point--except Under Armour is tracking real behavior and the data is more specific… making people better athletes makes them need more of our gear.”  The examples of this new logic are endless, from smart vodka bottles to Internet-enabled rectal thermometers and quite literally everything in between. A Goldman Sachs report calls it a “gold rush,” a race to “vast amounts of data.”

What one ends up with, notes Zuboff, is something that Catherine Austin Fitts and I have pointed out in her quarterly Solari Report wrap-ups: the decline of the standard models of supply and demand, and a corresponding decline in the pricing mechanism as a viable barometer of actual human behavior and market conditions, and its fundamental condition and premise is lawlessness:

There was a time when we laid responsibility for the assault on behavioral data at the door of the state and its security agencies. Later, we also blamed the cunning practices of a handful of banks, data brokers, and Internet companies. Some attribute the assault to an inevitable “age of big data,” as if it were possible to conceive of data born pure and blameless, data suspended in some celestial place where facts sublimate into truth.

I’ve come to a different conclusion:  The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative surveillance project that subverts the “normal” evolutionary mechanisms associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.

Surveillance capitalism is a novel economic mutation bred from the clandestine coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three decades, especially in the Anglo economies. It is an unprecedented market form that roots and flourishes in lawless space.  It was first discovered and consolidated at Google, then adopted by Facebook, and quickly diffused across the Internet. Cyberspace was its birthplace because, as Google/Alphabet Chairperson Eric Schmidt and his coauthor, Jared Cohen, celebrate on the very first page of their book about the digital age, “the online world is not truly bound by terrestrial laws…it’s the world’s largest ungoverned space.”

So how does one inoculate against it? This is where Zuboff's reasoning becomes interesting indeed. Drawing an analogy between this new lawless surveillance capitalism and the HIV epidemic and the search for a vaccine against the immuno-suppressive disease, the she notes that standard vaccine methods simply did not work with the disease, because of its ability to do end runs around every attempted solution... until, that is, that scientists noticed that some people with HIV never contracted full-blown AIDS simply because their blood was somehow able to produce antibodies to fight it. The focus shifted from standard techniques of vaccination to trying to figure out why some people had this mechanism, while the vast majority did not and had to be kept alive by cocktails of drugs. Her point is that "surveillance capitalism" cannot be fought against by the same old methods:

The point for us is that every successful vaccine begins with a close understanding of the enemy disease. We tend to rely on mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes. I am thinking of the twentieth century’s totalitarian nightmares or the monopolistic predations of Gilded Age capitalism. But the vaccines we’ve developed to fight those earlier threats are not sufficient or even appropriate for the novel challenges we face. It’s like we’re hurling snowballs at a smooth marble wall only to watch them slide down its façade, leaving nothing but a wet smear: a fine paid here, an operational detour there.

Thus, as she puts it, "I am convinced that fighting the “enemy disease” cannot begin without a fresh grasp of the novel mechanisms that account for surveillance capitalism’s successful transformation of investment into capital." So how did Google, which Zuboff compares to Ford and General Motors as the "mother company" that prototyped new ways of production, manage to monetize its data collection? She notes that at the start of this process, the user of Google's search engine typed in the search, and over time, as Google built up data, that this enabled the search engine itself to become more efficient. The monetization came after the dot.com bust, when Google began to sell advertising that could respond to individual search patterns. Did you do a search for buying shoes online? Then the advertising you'll see on your computer will be from various shoe companies, and so on:

Operationally this meant that Google would finally repurpose its growing cache of behavioral data. Now the data would also be used to match ads with keywords, exploiting subtleties that only its access to behavioral data, combined with its analytical capabilities, could reveal.

But the important principle to note here is that the search engine user is no longer the consumer, the goal of the transaction. Rather, he's simply a behavioral data supplier; the real transaction is between the search platform provider and the other corporations:

Key to this formula, however, is the fact that this new market exchange was not an exchange with users but rather with other companies who understood how to make money from bets on users’ future behavior. In this new context, users were no longer an end-in-themselves. Instead they became a means to profits in a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products. Users are the source of free raw material that feeds a new kind of manufacturing process.

In other words, users as no longer even a corporate "human resource" to be mined, rather, they are simply a "free" resource that's "out there", like a precious metal in the ground, waiting to be mined. The result it that capital is siphoned off into a kind of parasitic marketplace that does not actually increase any tangible product or service (like shoes); money flows faster and faster, and produces less and less. Zuboff puts it this way:

This is how in our own lifetimes we observe capitalism shifting under our gaze: once profits from products and services, then profits from speculation, and now profits from surveillance. This latest mutation may help explain why the explosion of the digital has failed, so far, to decisively impact economic growth, as so many of its capabilities are diverted into a fundamentally parasitic form of profit.

Consequently, once one understands this fact, one can understand that conventional inoculations - regulations, financial penalties - and so on, simply will not work. One is not dealing with a conventional disease, one is dealing, according to her analogy, with HIV:

Once we understand this equation, it becomes clear that demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the Internet is like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck or a cow to give up chewing. Such demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival. How can we expect companies whose economic existence depends upon behavioral surplus to cease capturing behavioral data voluntarily? It’s like asking for suicide....

Nothing short of a social revolt that revokes collective agreement to the practices associated with the dispossession of behavior will alter surveillance capitalism’s claim to manifest data destiny.

... In undertaking this challenge we must be mindful that contesting Google, or any other surveillance capitalist, on the grounds of monopoly is a 20th century solution to a 20th century problem that, while still vitally important, does not necessarily disrupt surveillance capitalism’s commercial equation. We need new interventions that interrupt, outlaw, or regulate 1) the initial capture of behavioral surplus, 2) the use of behavioral surplus as free raw material, 3) excessive and exclusive concentrations of the new means of production, 4) the manufacture of prediction products, 5) the sale of prediction products, 6) the use of prediction products for third-order operations of modification, influence, and control, and 5) the monetization of the results of these operations. This is necessary for society, for people, for the future, and it is also necessary to restore the healthy evolution of capitalism itself. (Emphasis added)

The result, in effect, of surveillance capitalism's model is that the conventional corporation reaches out beyond the conventional limitations of the corporation itself, such that the surveillance capitalist corporation now

sustains a privately administered compliance regime of rewards and punishments that is largely free from detection or sanction. It operates without meaningful mechanisms of consent either in the traditional form of “exit, voice, or loyalty” associated with markets or in the form of democratic oversight expressed in law and regulation.

So after all that review, what's my own high octane speculation and "take" on all of this. Surprisingly, while Zuboff does a remarkable job outlining the surveillance capitalism model, and what might be done to rein in some of its destructive and parasitic tendencies, she does not address the one fundamental issue squating like an ugly toad in the middle of it all that I believe must be addressed, and to which I already alluded: the idea of the corporation as a persona ficta in law. This is indeed, as I have outlined elsewhere, a hold-over from the Middle Ages, and more specifically, from the application in law of theological principles that were themselves highly problematic, i.e., the doctrine of "original sin" as the western Church came to understand it. That doctrine effectively "collectivized" the idea of sin and moral culpability in the human nature itself rather than the individual person (consider the term, so often used by so-called "bible" preachers, of "the sin nature"). Human nature could thus be considered a "federal person" consisting of a multitude of real persons, which is the very conceptual essence of a corporation. In other words, surveillance capitalism can only succeed by operating within a very medieval notion of the corporation as a persona ficta holding more reality or rights in law than actual real persons. This same inversion she alludes to when she states that this is not a coup d'etat, but a coup de gens, a coup against people, against persons. The same inversion is evident in our treatment of the unborn, and the harvesting of organs from abortions as resources to be used elsewhere. Again, the persona ficta is more real, in law, than the persona rea. The fact that these two confusions exist means that our culture is breaking down at one of its key conceptual points, and is becoming confused as to what "personhood" actually is, and what indicates a person. (And I am perhaps crawling way out to the end of the twig, to suggest that the common conception underlying these truncated notions of personhood is that it is now reduced to the performance of the functions of the common human nature: i.e., it is data to be collected, organs to be harvested, and so on).

So I would aver that in addition to her enumerated six points for dealing with surveillance capitalism that if one does not reexamine the whole notion of corporate personhood and individual sovereignty in law, the other five fixes will only be bandages. The problem is, of course, that the corporate person is so deeply embedded in our culture as part of its "cultural theology" so to speak, that it will take real digging and real thinking to undo that theology, and to understand what produced it. And that requires philosophy and metaphysics, and yes, theology. And our modern materialist and pseudo-scientific age does not want to "go there." It would rather continue with its not-so-modern practices of human sacrifice, be it of the overt kind, or the more subtle kind of "data collection" and "surveillance."

Or if I may be so bold, and put it in a nutshell: our crisis isn't "spiritual", it's theological, which is to say, it's conceptual.

And one final note: we won't find the answers in Rudolf Steiner or Edgar Cayce... we'll have to do some real work and some real reading and some real thinking...

See you on the flip side...