Big Brother says hello

Dirk Wegner

Such articles are mostly initiated by major scandals of various kinds which show clearly the quantity of sensitive data which is stored as a matter of course everywhere (and can thus be hacked). But politically relevant questions also come to the fore: to what extent were political campaigns significantly influenced by social platforms and how much will they be in future?

As important as these problems are, they only represent the tip of the iceberg of a historical stream which is currently changing the world we inhabit in an unprecedented way and radically threatens it. Zuboff’s book is based on research undertaken since 2006 and thoroughly reveals the development of the new, Internet-based form of economy which the author describes as “surveillance capitalism”. Surveillance capitalism according to Zuboff is: “A new form of market which claims human experience as the free raw material for its concealed commercial operations of extraction, prediction and sale; … the foundation of and framework for a surveillance economy; … the source of new instruments of power which claims sovereignty over society; aims for a new collective order based on total certainty; the expropriation of critical human rights …” – to name but a few criteria. What appears here as a list of headings is expanded in the following 700 pages in a detailed, logically compelling and reliably documented way. The notes alone, including the list of references, comprises over 100 pages.

The subject with its many different perspectives and interconnections as well as the chronological development are structures in a sensible way. The occasional summaries which are interspersed are helpful for keeping track of the overall flow of the thinking. Powerful, unambiguous and sometimes pointed formulations which keep being used like guiding ideas are refreshing. One of them is: Who knows? Who decides? And who decides who decides? This idea keeps recurring, culminating in the statement that the current development of the large Internet corporations is heading towards a kind of totalitarianism. 

They parasitically vacuum up data through their products and services; they possess the freedom and knowledge to manipulate and shape the swarm of humanity – represented by and reduced to egalitarian, variously combinable data records. The driving force of this totalitarianism is (still) profit; but it is also being done because it can be and because of delusions of power. 

The measure of the decisions taken by computer intelligence is not a quality and morality which relate to the individual but amoral statistical quantities. We need only remember that billions of people are being connected with one another, with selected information and, no less, disinformation without those responsible facing up to their responsibility beyond paying lip service, let along revealing the algorithms and underlying rules. Debating the latter and politically defining them should be mandatory because of their political and social effect which is partly responsible for the current global retreat of democracy as a form of state and society. 

In this totalitarianism, the real person who perceives reality, who makes decisions autonomously for themselves according to their own ideas, who wants political discourse and gives processes the time they need, who is not prepared to reduce their friendships to “Likes”, who sees the unasked and uncontrolled vacuuming up of the most personal data as a violation of their privacy and dignity, is the “spanner in the works”. Being the latter is the least that Zuboff considers necessary. But actually she is searching for an alternative, a social contract in which computers and the Internet, made by people for people, serve the latter and are not misused as an instrument for instrumentalising people. 

Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power, 691 pages, bound, EUR 20.99, Profile Books 2019