WShoshana Zuboff’s chicken The era of surveillance capitalism Published in 2019, Public Concern finds the power of big tech companies (Rosetta Stone), a work of art that simultaneously describes, affirms and advocates the transformation of democratic public spaces into profitable realms controlled by digital mega corporations. Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, spoke to TIME at length just days after Twitter announced its sale to Elon Musk, and the European Union approved a landmark law aimed at controlling Big Tech. This interview has been edited for clarity:
TIME: Within two days of this month, the world’s richest man bought Twitter and the European Union approved the most important effort to regulate Big Tech to date, the Digital Services Act. Where do you see things?
Zubov: These are the ends of the past and the future that define our situation today. More than two decades ago, US lawmakers handed over the new networked information spaces of our digital age to private companies. Mr. Musk is the benefactor of this misguided past. This means that we don’t have laws that prevent one person from owning a large portion of our information space and doing whatever they want. The result is that the whole world is forced to obsess over one individual: “What will Mr. Musk do?” We are becoming painfully aware that the way these spaces of information are designed, owned and operated has a material impact on our lives, our societies, and the viability of our democracies.
Thanks to historical developments in the European Union, that old story is no longer the full story. The new legislation known as the Digital Services Act (DSA) is the second end and points us towards a different future. Mr. Musk no longer faces a free ride in a lawless place. DSA is driving a democratic renaissance that challenges the tech giants’ vision of our future. The democratic rule of law has just landed in our digital information space, and the time has not come yet. While the effects are direct in the European Union, there are seismic effects for the rest of the world. Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, gave the floor to Mr. Musk, “Elon, there are rules now.”
Why was the Internet in the first place outside the law?
Back in the mid-1990s at the dawn of the World Wide Web, when less than 20% of the world’s information was stored digitally, liberal democracies failed to build a coherent political vision of a digital century that would advance democratic values, principles, and governance. By 1997, Clinton and Gore had published the first formal policy framework for “global e-commerce.” “The private sector must lead,” they wrote. Existing laws and regulations that might hinder e-commerce – this is a quote – should have been “reviewed or repealed”.
There was a great sense of optimism at the time, the digital utopia of the 1990s.
Yes, it was the market utopia of the 1990s, which was also a very radical anti-democratic vision. Our legislators believed that democracy was inferior to private corporations. They have literally abdicated responsibility for every major political issue in the new digital spaces, including privacy and consumer protection.
That void was left, and was quickly filled by the small Internet companies that started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and their new economic rationale for surveillance capitalism: after dot.com went bankrupt, they had to find a way to monetize. It was not clear. Google was the first to crack the code. This icon was really something. Because what this code said is that everything can be converted into data. Your breakfast, your anger, your shoulders bent, where you go, what you do, what you say.
Larry Page, co-founder of Google, was asked in 2001, “What is Google’s Business?” His answer was “personal information”. He saw that all human life would be searchable and indexable. Google created a search engine for users to search the world, but its real value was in enabling Google to search its users. It has led to the mass destruction of privacy that is the hallmark of our time.
We all live in perpetual monsoons. We get wet, gossip and shiver. Nowhere to get out of the rain. But our government will not allow the sale of umbrellas.
And other companies have followed the example of Google?
Yeah. In the absence of law, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were free to assert their personal power to organize and showcase the world of information. Mark Zuckerberg asserted his personal power over social connections on a global scale. This is unbearable. In a democracy, you simply create unsustainable conditions.
Citizens have become spectators. Every day when you read the news, it’s all about it, please Mr. Zuckerberg, please do something to make things better. Please, Mr. Dorsey – Jack Dorsey, founder and occasional leader of Twitter. Please, Mr. Dorsey, please make life bearable for us. Do not destroy our community! Do not destroy our democracy! Don’t make every hour of every day too stressful.
We are begging spectators for these once-young men with access to knowledge about people and society that never existed before. A Facebook document released around 2018 described Facebook’s artificial intelligence, and how all data streams are calculated in predictions. It was ingesting trillions of data points every day to produce 6 million behavioral predictions every second.
This is how the power of divinity was imagined, this kind of all-knowing. But now we are talking about operations that are mainly controlled by a small number of men. Musk looks at this and sees that a company is about to happen, and all he has to do is buy the company at the price of his acceptance into this divine clique, this clique of gods.
So he can also use the keyboard and make things better or worse for everyone, as he sees fit.
Does it matter that Musk wants to make the company private?
By making Twitter private, Mr. Musk avoids any restrictions imposed by routine corporate governance. So Mr. Musk will have ultimate power, and that puts him next to absolute corruption. Unfortunately, we are already seeing Mr. Musk using his new position to post threatening tweets Which seems calculated to compel civil society to silence, while calling for trolls and harassers to target these organizations, their leaders, members, councils, etc. We’re also learning more about Mr. Musk’s investors, who include a group of billionaire libertarians as well as investment firms. Among them are Saudi Prince Al-Waleed, and Qatar Holding LLC, owned by the Investment Authority of the State of Qatar. Both investors are linked to regimes known for censorship and repression of journalists.
TIME magazine’s 2021 Person of the Year story notes on Musk that he was a tech giant that dealt less with data than with physical things: spaceships and electric cars.
In almost every case today, surveillance capitalism is rearranging sectors and industries so that products and services increasingly become mere loss drivers for data that can be extracted when people interact with the product or service.
So: I don’t care about selling a thermostat for your bedroom, I care about the data that will flow through the thermostat. Or the dishwasher or the TV – or the car for God’s sake. In the automotive industry, they are now writing about cars as mobile monitoring platforms. Our homes have become observation platforms.
Surveillance capitalism treats information as a big commodity, like tons of meat or barrels of oil. It has nothing to do with the meaning of the information, whether it is factual or corrupt. Plowing trillions of data points across computers every day, to produce 6 million predictions per second, there is no ability to calculate meaning, truth, or truth. In fact, academic researchers have found that corrupt information—that is, flamboyant information, strange, marginal, and crazy content—attracts more “sharing,” and thus more opportunities to extract more data. In other words, information integrity is really bad for business. Corrupt information is good for business, in this upside-down world that we have allowed to create.
So do you see real hope for EU action?
The Data Services Act is a democratic law that is beginning to reclaim the void. what the companies did – arrogance and daring; And the helplessness we felt, the giving up – all of that is now a part of the past. The story is moving forward. We now understand that this is not about technological determinism. This is a story about strength. Democracy regains power.
There is a great sentence by Hanna Arendt in her discussion of Lying in Politics. “In normal circumstances, the liar is defeated by the irreplaceable reality,” she says. But surveillance capitalism creates abnormal conditions. Secrecy was the critical factor that enabled online startups 20 years ago to create the global corporate order today. They extract our data through hidden mechanisms, ergo monitoring. The processes through which this data moves are confidential and indecipherable. There is no transparency and therefore no standard of reality by which we can judge the integrity of information.
The Digital Services Act mandates transparency. It allows, for the first time, independent auditors and researchers to open up these black boxes — data mining, algorithmic targeting that favors corrupt information because it creates more opportunities for data mining — all of these kinds of things that were previously invisible.
DSA will make it possible for reality to defeat lies. She stresses that the quality of information is important. Facts and the truth are important. Misinformation is not information. Removing facts is no ordinary rhetoric. No society can live when its networked spaces of information are owned and managed by an economic system in which corrupt information is good for business.
All of this will be possible because the law calls for building real institutions — new capabilities for oversight, auditing and enforcement, with data scientists, engineers and auditors working for democracy rather than technology companies. And the biggest technology companies are obligated to cover most of the costs of these new activities.
And by eliminating free technology pass on illegal content, the DSA has finally debunked the anti-democratic myth of “cyberspace,” which former Google-Alphabet chief Eric Schmidt described as “the world’s largest ungoverned space,” a magical region that “is not Truly bound by the laws of the land.” Through the DSA, the European Union declares that digital spaces are spaces of community, and that digital must live in the home of democracy, not as an opponent, but as a happy and productive member of the family. Only in this way will knowledge, the true fruit of the digital age, return to people to meet the challenges we face as families, communities and as creatures on a sick planet. This is how we launch innovation that enriches the many, not just the few.
Is Big Tech Too Strong to Regulate on Capitol Hill?
Of course not…another myth born of PR messages and tech lobbies. Think of all the industries that are successfully regulated. Consider how less than a hundred years ago we codified new rights and laws for workers and consumers, wresting absolute power from the giants of industry. Since 2018, the American public has experienced a widespread rupture of faith with big technology and surveillance capitalism. Survey research is really very negative. The public is calling for action, and history suggests that this kind of public shift heralds a new era of law and politics. Lawmakers act when they really feel that the public is behind them. And 94% of Americans say they are concerned about privacy, and 93% about disinformation and its effects on society. Seven out of 10 Americans say tech companies have a lot of power.
You mention “regulation”. In my opinion, we are past the point where regulation is an option. There is no point in regulating something that is essentially illegal and should be equally illegal. The challenge today is renewal. We must return to the basic questions and ask ourselves, What does a democratic digital future require? This is the new starting point.
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