In 2018, digital rhetoric scholar Dr. Heather Suzanne Woods wrote a scathing article on our misplaced trust in artificial intelligence virtual assistants. Paradoxically, the title, “Asking more of Siri and Alexa,” reflects the opposite of what the article suggests. And she is far from alone in concluding that we need to be wiser about asking anything of technologies such as these– the nodes that comprise the Internet of Things, while marketed as product-service hybrids intended to make things easier, more often add complexity to already complicated lives, making people anxious, overloaded, and unable to cope with an excess of data. But it seems humanity might have bigger fish to fry than our chronic information pathology.
Dr. Shoshana Zuboff keys us into these concerns in her book, Surveillance Capitalism, the ultimate claim of which is that by continuing to engage in technophilia, or if not technophilia then techno-ambivalence, society is slipping toward a weakening of autonomy, privacy, and individual decision-making powerful enough to threaten our most prized institution: democracy.
Surveillance capitalism, like all other forms of capitalism, evolved by claiming something not yet a part of the market dynamic. Older forms of capitalism claimed natural resources, land, and labor as commodities to be sold and repurposed. Surveillance capitalism claims data, but not just any data. The data interests of surveillance capitalism lie in the private lives of technology users: what do people say, to whom, and how? where do they go, with whom, and how? what do they buy, for what, and how? This raw data can then be transformed into metadata profiles used to super-target individuals, nudging people toward actions that serve commercial interests.
The common refrain of “I’d rather see something I’m interested in” is enough to assuage the creeping anxiety of most while scrolling Instagram, ignoring pointed ads of a product mentioned in passing to a friend or partner. But this surplus accumulation of data goes far beyond nudging users toward purchases. In 2016, Cambridge Analytica used this same metadata to make political predictions about people. In an age of smart cities, ubiquitous computing, and quantified selves, digital platforms become the new battlegrounds of our most pressing battles: freedom from government surveillance, freedom of speech, racial justice, labor relations, and safety from bad actors. When Google can set paid customer lures via Pokémon Go to modify shopping behaviors, when advertisement becomes propaganda, when the digital is instrumentalized to the purpose of instrumentalizing people, that is how democracy finds itself in peril. When all it takes is money to buy the data and the algorithm, new poverties of information emerge that in many ways will enforce and supersede those of economics. Too much trust is put into large technological organizations to protect the data of millions, the same kind of trust generally reserved for fiduciary relationships.
“[Surveillance capitalism] substitutes computation for politics, so it’s post-democracy,” says Zuboff. “It substitutes populations for societies, statistics for citizens, and computation for politics.”
…Alexa, play Despacito.