Surveillance capitalism

Surveillance capitalism refers to the extraction and commodification of personal data in order to create accurate prediction products that reveal our current, future, and anticipated behavior. This concept, coined by Shoshanna Zuboff, highlights the growing influence of digital platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which now possess the power to shape and manipulate our actions for profit.

  • Asymmetries in knowledge and power. One of the key aspects of surveillance capitalism is the significant power asymmetry between these platforms and their users. While these companies possess extensive knowledge about us, their operations are intentionally designed to remain opaque and unknowable to us. They amass vast amounts of data from us, but this knowledge is not used to benefit us; instead, it is leveraged to enhance their own profitability.
  • The extraction imperative. The extraction imperative is another crucial component of surveillance capitalism. We, as users, are treated as raw materials for the extraction, prediction, and sale of our behavioral data. When platforms invest in new technologies or innovations, it is not simply a far-sighted investment in the future; rather, it is an opportunity to gather even more data about our behaviors. As Zuboff points out, the notion that “if it’s free, you are the product” is misleading. In reality, we are the abandoned carcasses from which surplus value is extracted.
  • The shadow text. The concept of the shadow text emerges as a result of surveillance capitalism. It represents the ever-growing accumulation of behavioral surplus and its analyses, revealing more about us than we could possibly know about ourselves. Moreover, it becomes increasingly challenging, if not impossible, to avoid contributing to this shadow text, as it automatically feeds on our everyday social interactions and routines.
  • Threats to individual sovereignty. Individual sovereignty is eroded under surveillance capitalism in two ways. Firstly, it challenges our right to shape the future. Zuboff argues that authority over the digital future should lie with the people, their laws, and democratic institutions, rather than being concentrated in the hands of powerful corporations. Secondly, it erodes our right to privacy and sanctuary. Privacy serves a crucial psychological function, allowing us to engage in contemplation, creativity, and personal growth. Without the space for these experiences, we cannot flourish as individuals or meaningfully contribute to our communities and society.
  • Behaviour modification. Behaviour modification is a fundamental goal of surveillance capitalists. These companies have learned that the most effective way to ensure certainty for advertisers is to actively intervene in our lives. They employ strategies such as nudging, coaxing, tuning, and herding our behavior towards outcomes that are profitable for them. Numerous examples illustrate the real-world impact of behavior modification by surveillance capitalists. The Facebook Mood Experiment in 2012 manipulated users’ emotions to examine their effect on online behavior. In 2016, Pokemon Go utilized augmented reality and location data to drive users to specific physical locations. A leaked document in 2017 revealed that Facebook was aware of users’ emotional vulnerability and exploited it for targeted advertising. In 2018, FBLearner Flow, a Facebook tool, predicted users’ intentions to switch to competing brands. The Cambridge Analytica scandal in the same year demonstrated how personal data was used to influence political campaigns.

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