Every time we go online data is being collected about us, but that is not even the worst part says Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, the more disturbing issue is that the data is being used to not only predict our behaviour but shape it too.
Zuboff says big data companies such as Facebook have become elephant poachers with our personal data the ivory tusks.
It’s very much like the climate crisis, she says.
“The idea is that we’ve inherited two centuries of industrial capitalism that while we were sleeping, destroyed the natural ecosystem of the planet, and now we have to scramble to figure out how to correct this and how to avoid the worst consequences of this disaster.”
The architecture of the digital world - which extends far beyond the online world - has been commandeered by an unusual, startling and audacious new kind of capitalism that’s in many ways violent, she says.
“I feel that unless we all gather together and become much more clear-minded about what’s happening and what is at stake, then this sadly will be another kind of social legacy that we bequeath to our children and it will be up to them to figure it out, the threads of democracy that are increasingly buried in this new onslaught.”
Surveillance capitalism emulates the historic pattern of capitalism, says Zuboff, it evolves by claiming things that live outside of the market dynamic, dragging them into the market place and turning them into commodities.
“Famously industrial capitalism claimed nature for the market to be reborn as real estate, as land that could be sold and purchased. When we talk about surveillance capitalism, we see the same pattern, but in this case with an unusual and disturbing twist - surveillance capitalism claims private human experience for the market dynamic.”
This is done in ways that are unilateral and in ways that are secret, she says.
The translation of our private lives into data may be used to improve services but a great deal of it is valued for its predictive signals, she says. It’s more than what’s required to simply improve products.
It’s a surplus, she says.
“It’s these rich, predictive data flows which they gather into their supply chains, that they convey to a new production process and this is what we call machine intelligence, some people like to call it artificial intelligence.”
Trillions of data points are digested everyday, she says, and predictions of human behaviour are produced. A leaked Facebook memo in 2018 spoke of “predications of human behaviour” and the company reaching a volume of predictions of 6 million per second.
The predictions are sold to business customers in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures, she says.
“The big, original experiment in all of this was online targeted advertising, where the click-through rate was a prediction of human behaviour and those online targeted ad markets were markets that traded in these behavioural futures.”
Scale and scope are important but the best data comes from intervening in human behaviour, she says, and shaping it towards the most profitable outcomes.
“This introduces a whole new world,” she says. It’s about feeding back to us specific cues and rewards, and herding us.
“The dominant capitalism of our time trades on our futures and as a necessary consequence of that, has to construct elaborate, complex, often experimental systems of behavioural modification at scale in order to be successful.”
We’re loosing the most elemental human right of privacy, she says.
Shoshana Zuboff challenges us to better understand the significance of data as the new currency in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.