July 28, 2019

Zuboff, Chapter 2. Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism.

Last week, I wrote up notes on the introductory chapter to Zuboff's book (and I'll be tagging all the posts #Zuboff to keep them together); this week's chapter plunges us into the details of her historical argument. Zuboff takes three key moments from the summer of 2011 (not all that long ago, right? but already part of a historical drama) and uses those moments to help focus a larger narrative about two massive transformations of the 20th century: the modernity which has resulted in a new "society of individuals" on the one hand, and the advent of neoliberalism and free market capitalism on the other. By studying the rise of individualization and also of neoliberalism, Zuboff shows how surveillance capitalism has emerged as the convergence of these two very different historical movements.

An aside: my economic ignorance. Zuboff's analysis easily explains just how I was so caught by surprise by the turn that events have taken: the arrival of the Internet enraptured me (as a reader, a writer, a teacher, it was a dream come true), while my ignorance of economics made me oblivious to what was happening in the corporate world. When I first learned to create webpages in the fall of 1998, I felt so lucky: it was my last year of graduate school, and I would begin my career as an academic with all the freedom that the Internet offered me and my students. Instead of writing "papers" and taking paper-and-pencil tests that all ended up in the trash can, we would create digital artifacts ⁠— made of words, images, and even audio and video ⁠— and we would share what we created with other learners all over the world. We would no longer have to travel to university libraries to read the books; the books would come to us, wherever we were. No longer would publishers regulate what we read and what we would have to pay to read those publications; we could do all that by ourselves for ourselves.

And, indeed, some of that digital dream has come true... but some of it has turned into a neoliberal nightmare. I'm teaching fully online courses where students create and share what they create with one another (my dream come true), but I am doing that as an adjunct instructor, teaching at a public university where state support for education has plunged and tuition has skyrocketed. My school offers webspace for faculty to use, but most faculty use the LMS instead, keeping their courses closed, deleting everything at the end of the semester, and leaving no digital trail for other teachers and learners to follow and explore. Worse: the LMS has now become a full-blown experiment in surveillance capitalism, gathering data about students to build predictive algorithms, as I wrote about in last week's post.

Dream. Nightmare. That is the story that Zuboff begins to unfold in detail with this chapter. If the Internet had arrived during the era of the New Deal, things might have turned out very differently. Or if the Internet had arrived during the era of the civil rights movement and the Great Society. But instead, the Internet arrived during the era of free markets and neoliberalism... and the result is terrifying. We urgently need to understand what is happening so that we can try to put a stop to the nightmare. And maybe even save some of the dream.

Here are some of the key points I would highlight from the chapter:

Remember the iPod? Before the iPhone, it was the iPod and iTunes that turned Apple into a business colossus. The "i" was about digital info but also about "I" the individual:
Young people's enthusiasm for Napster and other forms of file sharing expressed a new quality of demand: consumption my way, what I want, when I want it, where I want it. [...] Apple was among the first to experience explosive commercial success by tapping into a new society of individuals and their demand for individualized consumption.
This individualized consumption resonated with the modern "society of individuals," feeling like a kind of liberation, but instead it was going to lead to new forms of exploitation and oppression. Although this was not clear at the time ⁠—certainly not to digital enthusiasts like myself ⁠— there were two vectors at work here:
One vector belongs to the longer history of modernization and the centuries-long societal shift from the mass to the individual. [...] The opposing vector belongs to the decades-long elaboration and implementation of the neoliberal economic paradigm, [...] especially its aim to reverse, subdue, impede, and even destroy the individual urge toward psychological self-determination and moral agency.
Individualization v. individualism. In last week's post, I wrote about the perverse way that ed tech uses the term "personalization" to describe the automation of education, something that I would call de-personalization instead. Zuboff highlights a similar tension between modern individualization and the individualism of neoliberalism:
First let’s establish that the concept of "individualization" should not be confused with the neoliberal ideology of "individualism" that shifts all responsibility for success or failure to a mythical, atomized, isolated individual.
When the Internet arrived, it offered possibilities for discovery and connection that were poised to promote individual liberation and self-determination, just at the moment we needed it:
The burdens of life without a fixed destiny turned us toward the empowering information-rich resources of the new digital milieu as it offered new ways to amplify our voices and forge our own chosen patterns of connection.
But neoliberal economic policies promoted by Hayek, Friedman, et al., hijacked that potential for the benefit of companies and their shareholders:
The absolute authority of market forces would be enshrined as the ultimate source of imperative control, displacing democratic contest and deliberation with an ideology of atomized individuals sentenced to perpetual competition for scarce resources. [...] The disciplines of competitive markets promised to quiet unruly individuals and even transform them back into subjects too preoccupied with survival to complain.
The result is not just neoliberalism, but neofeudalism:
Many scholars have taken to describing these new conditions as neofeudalism, marked by the consolidation of elite wealth and power far beyond the control of ordinary people and the mechanisms of democratic consent. [...] Piketty calls it a return to "patrimonial capitalism," a reversion to a premodern society in which one’s life chances depend upon inherited wealth rather than meritocratic achievement.
What's different, of course, is that while these neofeudalizing forces at work, we are now modern individuals:
We are not illiterate peasants, serfs, or slaves. We are [...] people whom history has freed both from the once-immutable facts of a destiny told at birth and from the conditions of mass society. [...] We want to exercise control over our own lives, but everywhere that control is thwarted.
An especially cruel paradox is that one way we have sought to exercise control is by using the Internet: searching, connecting, and sharing. Yet all those clicks become the new "behavioral surplus" to be harvested by the digital overlords in this neofeudal arrangement:
Every casual search, like, and click was claimed as an asset to be tracked, parsed, and monetized by some company, all within a decade of the iPod’s debut. [...]The rise of surveillance capitalism betrayed the hopes and expectations of many "netizens" who cherished the emancipatory promise of the networked milieu. Under this new regime, the precise moment at which our needs are met is also the precise moment at which our lives are plundered for behavioral data, and all for the sake of others’ gain.
Ed tech and the right to be forgotten. Back in 1998, I saw the Internet as the way that we would empower ourselves as students and teachers, but now the LMS wants to diminish us instead, rendering us as raw material for new ed tech products like predictive algorithms and other forms of automation, just as Zuboff sees happening in the digital world at large:
The result is a perverse amalgam of empowerment inextricably layered with diminishment. [...] Terms whose meanings we take to be positive or at least banal—"the open internet," "interoperability," and "connectivity"—have been quietly harnessed to a market process in which individuals are definitively cast as the means to others’ market ends.
But there are ways to fight back, and Zuboff closes the chapter with the story of a legal battle in Spain for the "right to be forgotten," thus reclaiming our rights to the future tense and to sanctuary:
The new harms we face entail challenges to the sanctity of the individual, and chief among these challenges I count the elemental rights that bear on individual sovereignty, including the right to the future tense and the right to sanctuary. [...] The extreme asymmetries of knowledge and power that have accrued to surveillance capitalism abrogate these elemental rights as our lives are unilaterally rendered as data, expropriated, and repurposed in new forms of social control, all of it in the service of others’ interests and in the absence of our awareness or means of combat.
I began reading Zuboff's book as a result of learning that Instructure had unilaterally laid claim to the data about me and about my students in their LMS, exploiting that data to create predictive models as part of their ongoing quest for market dominance (details). Zuboff does not talk about LMSes in this book, but the "right to be forgotten" is something we must fight for in the ed tech world. As companies like Instructure now want to gather data about us "from the first day of school until the last day of work" (their new company slogan), we have to fight for the right to our own futures, futures that we choose, not futures determined by the data in Instructure's possession, data that they are using to profile us, both to predict our behavior and also to modify it.

(Instructure home page)

The story of Instructure's data grab parallels events at Google and its evolution. A big difference, of course, is that while Google does offer enormous benefits, I cannot say the same about the LMS, which makes it all the more perverse that we have put the LMS at the center of our digital education efforts, letting it demand our money, time, attention, and other precious resources even before it started amassing our data for machine-learning purposes. More on that later; for now, here is Zuboff on Google and the importance of the EU Court of Justice decision on the right to be forgotten:
Google’s mission to "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful"—starting with the web—changed all of our lives. There have been enormous benefits, to be sure. But for individuals it has meant that information that would normally age and be forgotten now remains forever young, highlighted in the foreground of each person’s digital identity. [...] The Court of Justice’s decision, so often reduced to the legal and technical considerations related to the deletion or de-linking of personal data, was in fact a key inflection point at which democracy began to claw back rights to the future tense from the powerful forces of a new surveillance capitalism determined to claim unilateral authority over the digital future.
In these brief notes and highlights, I cannot convey the fullness of Zuboff's story, but I hope that my comments here might inspire you to read the book too, and also to take action, clawing back our rights to our own digital future.

For me, that action has been scrutinizing developments at Instructure and lobbying for the right to opt out of their AI and machine-learning initiatives. I keep watching the three company blogs ⁠— Instructure, Canvas, Bridge ⁠— for a promised post about their new "data tenets."

Meanwhile, I will be back again next week with notes for Chapter 3 of Zuboff's book. Thoughts? You can comment here or find me at Twitter; I'm @OnlineCrsLady there. And thanks for reading!

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