Human nature—how we exist, how we live our lives—is at risk. That’s the premise of Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Zuboff believes the tech giants have created a new form of capitalism. The surveillance capitalist “wants your bloodstream and your bed, your breakfast conversation, your commute, your run, your refrigerator, your parking space, your living room.”
In the old propaganda system, media audiences were not the consumers but the products, sold to the real consumers, the advertisers. In surveillance capitalism, you are neither the consumer nor the product, simply raw material. The tech giants don’t need your consumption, or even your attention: they make their money by selling products that predict your behavior based on the trails of data that you throw off as you go about your daily business online (and, increasingly—with ubiquitous surveillance devices in the environment—offline as well).
And once your behavior can be predicted, it can be changed. You are being hacked, Zuboff says, as the surveillance capitalists “nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions by executing actions as subtle as inserting a specific phrase into your Facebook news feed, timing the appearance of a BUY button on your phone, or shutting down your car engine when an insurance payment is late.”
Each new nudge-able behavior becomes a free asset for the taking, as opportunities are found to make money by controlling you. For example, insurance companies offer discounted premiums if you install a surveillance device in your car to monitor your good driving behavior. Once it’s in there, in Zuboff’s words, “the insurance company can set specific parameters for driving behavior. These can include anything from fastening the seat belt to rate of speed, idling times, braking and cornering, aggressive acceleration, harsh braking, excessive hours on the road, driving out of state, and entering a restricted area.” Amazon’s employees, called “athletes,” wear monitored devices to push them to higher levels of productivity. We fear being replaced by robots: surveillance capitalists make us into the robots.
The stakes are as high as the level of control is microscopic. A new form of power, which Zuboff calls “instrumentarian,” has arisen. Instrumentarian power would have you cede your privacy, your behavior, your free will, all to the profit imperatives of the tech giants. To maintain your individuality, Zuboff suggests, you are forced to “hide in your own life,” trying to use encryption and privacy technology to get around the surveillance. But the story of WhatsApp suggests that they can find you if you try to use technology to hide: intended as an encrypted and secure platform for people to chat with one another in privacy, WhatsApp is now one of Facebook’s flagship products. It’s also the platform on which lynchings are organized in India and on which the fascist Jair Bolsonaro’s election was coordinated in Brazil.
As you consciously try to minimize surveillance capitalism’s control on your individual mind and life, a philosophical framework would come in handy. Computer scientist Cal Newport has set out such a framework in his book Digital Minimalism. Newport argues that social media tools delivered through smartphones can add value to a person’s life, but not if used as directed. He asks readers to think carefully about exactly what value they are getting from engagement with these tools, and how we can get that value without the huge costs in time, energy, and emotion that we are currently paying. You can probably get the full value of Facebook from 20-40 minutes per week, he writes. All the other hours per day that you are spending are a voluntary gift of your attention and eyeballs to Facebook, which has figured out how to turn that attention into profit.
How to Defend Yourself Against Big Tech Manipulation
In the face of the old propaganda system, Noam Chomsky advocated a course of “intellectual self-defense.” In the face of the new, supercharged, surveillance capitalist version, I’m advocating a course of “social self-defense.” With help from Zuboff and Newport, here are four steps you can take to defend yourself against social media manipulation.
- Join the Attention Resistance. If you are using social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and hoping to retain your autonomy, Newport writes, “it’s crucial to understand that this is not a casual decision. You’re instead waging a David and Goliath battle against institutions that are both impossibly rich and intent on using this wealth to stop you from winning.” You will have to become a member of what Newport calls the attention resistance, “who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services—dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut.” Long live the resistance!
- Minimize the Role of Devices in Your Life. Newport’s tactical advice in this section is sound, and I won’t rehash it all, but here are a few key points: remove social media from your phone and access it on a computer; “dumb down” your smartphone; try embracing “slow” media; turn watching Netflix into a social, not an individual activity.
- Get Into Real Life. One way to “hide in your own life,” as Zuboff suggests, is to embrace Newport’s suggestions to take up “high-quality” leisure activities to crowd out the “low-quality” leisure that swiping and clicking on your phone represents. Don’t use your phone until you’ve lost the dexterity to use your hands, like the medical students who now lack the dexterity to stitch patients. Do things that involve your hands. Go for walks; embrace conversation, which is a “high-bandwidth” activity and the only real way to maintain friendships (and yes, phone and video calling do count as conversations, though in-person is better).
- Fight for a Better Digital World. Using your new practice interacting with real human beings in real life, join groups who are trying to get surveillance capitalism under control. The struggle to assert collective rights to privacy, to communication and information, will have to take a collective form. Perhaps it will be a struggle for regulation, to break up the tech monopolies and assert legal and democratic controls. Perhaps the communications infrastructure of societies shouldn’t be in private hands at all, but should be nationalized (there was a time when economists believed that certain infrastructures were “natural monopolies” that should be government-owned and run).
Newport emphasizes social and civic activity in crowding out mindless phone use, and warns not to be turned off by normal group dynamics: “It’s easy to get caught up in the annoyances or difficulties inherent in any gathering of individuals struggling to work toward a common goal. These obstacles provide a convenient excuse to avoid leaving the comfort of family and close friends, but… it’s worth pushing past these concerns.” I know that I’m not the only activist who has gotten caught up in the “inherent annoyances and difficulties” of offline activism (i.e., endless meetings, dysfunctional group dynamics). And in those dark moments when we think of isolation as an alternative, our phones are there to offer us the lowest forms of socializing and the lowest simulations of activism, clicking “like” (which Newport advises us to never do) and retweeting, or “desperately checking for retweets of a clever quip.” Don’t do that stuff—instead, join a real group and interact with people in real life.
There was a time decades ago when I was frustrated as an activist with groups who spent a lot of time talking and not enough time doing things (action being defined then mainly as street protests, or sometimes occupying things). I’m old enough to remember the criticism of “preaching to the choir,” back when there was apparently a metaphorical equivalent of a choir who would sing together every week. These days, getting together and talking about politics in person, even just with like-minded people, would already be subversive. Let’s talk. Because to work, the new tools of social self-defense must still be complemented by the old intellectual self-defense methods: talking and thinking with others, wide and critical reading, and taking conscious social action according to your principles.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. He is the author of the novel Siegebreakers.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.