The mass surveillance of society has made companies extremely wealthy

The Facebook news ban revealed how problematic it is to rely on corporations to provide fundamental public services

By business reporter Gareth Hutchens

Graphic shows two people on laptops in front of the Facebook logo.
Facebook harvests our personal data in unimaginable quantities, Gareth Hutchens writes.(Reuters: Dado Ruvic)

The fog lifted for a moment.

Last week, when Facebook blocked Australians from viewing and sharing „news content“ on its platform, we saw what role it plays in Australian society.

Community groups, charities, sport clubs, arts centres, unions and emergency services all rely on the social media giant.

Its platform plays the role of an important public messaging board.

But in a country with so little civil society infrastructure, our heavy reliance on a corporation to provide such a fundamental public service is deeply problematic.

Facebook, Inc. doesn’t care about your fundraiser or political protest.

It couldn’t care less about your art exhibition.

What it cares about is your personal data, which it harvests in unimaginable quantities.

And the methods it uses to keep its 2.7 billion monthly active users „engaged“ on its website (so it can keep learning more about them) are also deeply problematic.

Jaron Lanier, one of the founders of the field of virtual reality, has been warning about social media and tech giants for years.

„Everyone has been placed under a level of dystopian surveillance straight out of a dystopian science fiction novel,“ he wrote in 2018 about the technological architecture created by these companies.

„Spying is accomplished mostly through connected personal devices — especially, for now, smartphones — that people keep practically glued to their bodies.

„Data is gathered about each person’s communications, interests, movements, contact with others, emotional reactions to circumstances, facial expressions, purchases, vital signs: an ever-growing, boundless variety of data.“

Mr Lanier says the ocean of personal data these companies extract from the internet is turned into behavioural data that allows them to predict and manipulate our behaviour.

 
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„[These] platforms have proudly reported on experimenting with making people sad, changing voter turnout, and reinforcing brand loyalty,“ he said.

Just one example: in 2014, Facebook executives apologised after a scientific paper revealed the company had conducted secret psychological tests on 700,000 users, without its users‘ knowledge, in which it tried to manipulate its users‘ emotions to see what effect it would have on the status updates they posted or how they would use Facebook’s „like“ button.

Surveillance capitalism

It’s worth remembering what Facebook is.

It is a member of a group of companies that are engaged in something called „surveillance capitalism“.

According to Professor Shoshana Zuboff, the author who coined the term, surveillance capitalism refers to the „new economic order“ that has emerged in the age of the internet and smartphone.

She says the companies that practice it lay claim to our personal information, our „data“, as „free raw material“ to be aggressively harvested.

Some of the data they collect are used for product or service improvement, but the rest is considered as a proprietary „behavioural surplus“.

That surplus data is then fed into machine intelligence which turns the data into „prediction products“ that „anticipate what you will do now, soon and later“.

According to Professor Zuboff, social media companies trade those „prediction products“ in a new kind of marketplace for behavioural predictions which she calls „behavioural futures markets“.

„Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are eager to lay bets on our future behaviour,“ she wrote in her 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

„The competitive dynamics of these new markets drive surveillance capitalists to acquire ever-more-predictive sources of behavioural surplus: our voices, personalities, and emotions.

„Surveillance capitalists discovered that the most-predictive behavioural data come from intervening in the state of play in order to nudge, coax, tune, and herd behaviour towards profitable outcomes.

It has become difficult to escape this bold market project, whose tentacles reach from the gentle herding of innocent Pokemon Go players to eat, drink, and purchase in the restaurants, bars, fast-food joints, and shops that pay to play in its behavioural futures markets to the ruthless expropriation of surplus from Facebook profiles for the purposes of shaping individual behaviour, whether it’s buying pimple cream at 5:45pm on a Friday, clicking ‚yes‘ on an offer of new running shoes as the endorphins race through your brain after your long Sunday morning run, or voting next week.

„Just as industrial capitalism was driven to the continuous intensification of the means of production, so surveillance capitalists and their market players are not locked into the continuous intensification of the means of behavioural modification and the gathering might of instrumentarian power.“

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures with his arms and smiles as he speaks.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is a member of a group of companies engaged in „surveillance capitalism“.(AP: Trent Nelson via The Salt Lake Tribune)

Google invented surveillance capitalism

Professor Zuboff says Google invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in the early 2000s „in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial capitalism“.

„Google was the pioneer of surveillance capitalism in thought and practice, the deep pocket research and development, and the trailblazer in experimentation and implementation, but it is no longer the only actor on this path,“ she wrote.

„Surveillance capitalism quickly spread to Facebook and later to Microsoft. Evidence suggests that Amazon has veered in this direction, and it is a constant challenge to Apple, both as an external threat and as a source of internal debate and conflict.“

She published those words in 2019.

A little later that year, the Guardian described the book as an „epoch-defining international bestseller, drawing comparisons to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring“.

The mass surveillance of society has made companies extremely wealthy

One of the points Professor Zuboff has repeatedly made about surveillance capitalism is how profitable it is for the companies that practice it.

The ocean of personal data they hoover up is turned into unimaginable wealth and power, making the companies more powerful than nation-states.

It helps to explain why those tech companies have come to dominate stock markets.

A screenshot of the ABC News page on Facebook showing no posts
News organisations including the ABC have been impacted, along with community groups, charities, sport clubs, arts centres, unions, emergency services and more.(Supplied)

Last year, when researchers at the International Monetary Fund tried to figure out why there seemed to be a large disconnect between stock markets and the real world during one of the worst global recessions in memory, one thesis they considered was that the outsize influence of the big five tech companies — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, which accounted for 22 per cent of the market capitalisation on US stock markets — was making US financial markets appear healthier than they were.

At any rate, it comes back to the question of what type of organisation should be running a country’s quasi-public messaging board.

Are we happy to leave it to surveillance capitalists to run a „public good“ of that kind?

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-21/when-facebook-banned-news-australia-we-saw-role-it-plays/13175698

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