Preventing Surveillance Capitalism from Hijacking Socio-Ecological Transformations
Communication is crucial for impacting public discourse or forming alliances, especially when who defines the crisis and respective solutions is contested. For instance, advocates of green-growth models and digital solutions often narrow down the socio-ecological crisis to the issue of climate change. In contrast, advocates of socio-ecological transformations (SET) aim to tackle challenges interconnected with global warming, such as the crisis of care, ecosystem collapse, and intersectional power imbalances. They aim for structural change beyond economic growth and claim that these crises cannot be addressed in isolation as they are interrelated. In the digital economy of the present day, most communication channels are monopolised by Big Tech firms. Hence, any strategy towards a SET must consider the logic and operations of firms like Alphabet, Meta, or Microsoft. In this article, we explain the logic of Surveillance Capitalism (SC) and outline first ideas on what we call the ‹SC dilemma of SET›.
The new economic order emerged after the 2001 dot-com crash, when Google began targeting ads to individuals. SC is driven by the sale of prediction products. The prediction imperative unfolds as more accurate predictions of a person’s click on ads
In SC, user data turns into
a critical production resource
and profit becomes a function
of a firm’s surveillance
and manipulative capabilities.
increase ad-customers’ willingness to pay (Zuboff, 2019). Since the predictive ability of machine intelligence, the new means of production, is bound to the amount of data it is trained with, SC firms are economically pressured to obtain the most detailed and diverse data possible. Building on mass data analysis, the best predictions can be made by actively intervening behaviour. Under these imperatives, a ubiquitous extraction and execution architecture has been developed, consisting for instance of sensors, screens, and tools to discover patterns in data such as natural language processing, facial recognition, or sentiment analysis. In SC, user data turns into a critical production resource and profit becomes a function of a firm’s surveillance and manipulative capabilities.
Surveillance capitalist dilemma of the socio-ecological transformation
As much as SC services might mobilise people for SET, any information exchanged on accordant platforms is processed by machine intelligence to produce predictions and modify behaviour to maximise profit (Forbrukerrådet, 2020).
The failed constitutional
referendum in Chile
is a recent example of
how SC has contributed
to hijack a social movement
that aims at SET.
The socio-ecological crisis and communication intended for SET are utilised to accumulate surveillance capital.
Though mechanisms to influence public discourse with money are not unique to SC, the extraction/ execution architecture captures knowledge about social processes, intensifies manipulative capacities and tilts power further towards capital. SC reduces the relative influence of movements supporting SET because those who own and funnel their capital into prediction products are mostly corporations in the Global North interested in reinforcing a patriarchal and racialised order that supports their dominant position in society. The failed constitutional referendum in Chile is a recent example of how this mechanism of SC has contributed to hijack a social movement that aims at SET. In 2020, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favour of drafting a new constitution to curb the power of the undemocratically established neo-liberal regime. The 2022 constitutional draft included most demands of the October 2019 mass social uprising and was «the most progressive constitution ever written in terms of socio-economic rights, gender equality, indigenous rights and the protection of nature» (Vergara, 2020). Nevertheless, it was rejected by the citizenship. Groups interested in conserving the status quo had used their resources to consolidate «the narrative that the Convention was a political circus that had drafted a sloppy and unprofessional document» (Vergara, 2020). A survey investigating a sample of US$ 144,000 spent on political advertising
on Facebook and Instagram during the months before the plebiscite showed that 97.4% was spent on rejecting the draft constitution (Vergara, 2020).
The ubiquitous extraction/execution architecture is also used by states for repression and influencing. Police and intelligence agencies may get access to data, analysis tools, or predictions from SC firms (Westrich, 2022; Wetzling and Dietrich, 2022). Laws such as §49 of the German Law on Police Data Processing could legitimise the police to feed social media data into predictive policing tools such as Palantir’s software Gotham (GFF, 2020). Furthermore, governments may try to actively shape citizen behaviour. For example, in its ‹behavioural public policy›, the UK government intervenes in «cultures of communities deemed by the state to be risky» and promotes «capitalist, entrepreneurial, and ‘resilient’ models of the good citizen» (Collier et al., 2022).
Actors of SET who want to get
their voice heard are forced
to subdue to an emotionally
charged «superficial» mode
of communication «consumed with
short attention spans».
Such practices subdue marginalised or criminalised strata such as migrants, workers, or environmental activists to increasing state influence and put democracy at risk in favour of an authoritarian security state backed by SC.
According to Zuboff, platforms´ design principles, «engrossing, immersive, immediate» trigger addictive «loss of self-awareness, automatic behaviour, and a total rhythmic absorption carried along on a wave of compulsion» (2019). This state of mind keeps people for a vast amount of time in front of electronic devices and often occupies capacities for becoming active beyond liking, sharing, or commenting. Moreover, actors of SET who want to get their voice heard are forced to subdue to an emotionally charged «superficial» mode of communication «consumed with short attention spans» (Fuchs, 2022). This absorbed state of mind and shallow mode of communication is at odds with the kind of self-reflection and communication required to dismantle the multi-layered contexts underpinning the socio-ecological crisis.
Expanded view on surveillance capitalism
Although Zuboff’s concept reveals how SC may hijack SET, important aspects are misleading in her argumentation. While industrial capitalism has thrived on exploiting natural resources, Zuboff claims, SC would supersede this mode of production and flourishes on exploiting behavioural data extracted from human experience. Thereby, she creates a sentiment, which ignores the ecological implications of SC, idealises ‹good old› Fordist capitalism in terms of labour autonomy, and sidelines the manifold entanglements between surveillance and industrial capitalism. With our expanded view, we aim to paint a more holistic picture of the SC dilemma of SET.
A spatially and ecologically expanded view on digital economies is crucial for SET. Rather than being dismantled, Fordist production sites are often relocated to countries with lower wage levels and less environmental protection. The green image of SC stems from glorifying the merits of ‹intangible› prediction products in SC. However, SC contributes to exploiting ‹nature› on at least three fronts. First, the extraction/execution hardware is built on rare natural resources, such as coltan, tin, and lithium. Those resources are often mined under inhumane working conditions and with devastating environmental consequences (Groneweg and Reckordt, 2018). Second, energy demand increases as surveillance capitalists are economically pressured to maximise users’ time online and to process massive amounts of data to generate predictions. Third, those who are capable of and willing to invest in behavioural modification driven by SC are mostly providers of environmentally damaging industrial consumption products.
Extracted surplus labour in SC
includes precariously employed
click workers, content moderators
and content producers.
Furthermore, an expanded view on sources of surplus value is necessary. Fuchs (2023) argues, for example, that extracted surplus labour in SC includes precariously employed click workers, content moderators and content producers. Dominant market positions enable SC firms to extract monopoly rent and avoid taxes (Staab, 2021). Moreover, the technology and logic developed under SC imperatives has been merged with production sites from earlier phases of capitalism, allowing for massive micro-surveillance of workers and an ‹algorithmic management› in warehouses, factories, transport, call centres or even the knowledge economy (Christl, 2021). Including labour in our perspective on SC might have greater mobilising potential than Zuboff’s narrow view on exploitation of user autonomy.
Paths within the dilemma
The SC dilemma suggests that a SET will not materialise if SC prevails. Simultaneously, a simple boycott of SC services would make SET advocates disappear from the social sphere. Hence, it is crucial for SET advocates to form broad alliances for a sustainable (digital) future with both, the socio-ecological tech movement and people exploited by SC. Broadening the ‹Trägerkreis› (supporting circle) of the Bits & Bäume conference towards these strata, e.g., by inviting labour unions, may be a first step. Prohibiting SC operations such as microtargeting, psychometric analysis, geo-, mouse- and eye tracking as well as breaking up monopoly power may be strategies of such an alliance. Though ban and break-up may advance user autonomy and touch on elements of the dilemma, the path favours expanding market competition. Thus, if they stand alone, ban and break-up are unlikely to contribute meaningfully to overcoming the socio-ecological crisis. Hence, the alliance could, in addition, reclaim the nodes of communication currently occupied by SC. This reclaiming could be achieved through democratising platforms or transforming them into commons-based structures such as platform cooperatives (Pentzien, 2021), utilising approaches such as peer-to-peer networking (P2P Foundation, 2017). However, paths beyond SC are at risk of getting appropriated (Cohen, 2019) and should, thus, be critically evaluated (Weizenbaum, 1986) and not be limited to digital solutions.Next page