Beyond GDPR: what’s our next step in fixing surveillance capitalism?

By Adam Tinworth

Hello, and happy GDPR day, everyone! We’ve bombed your inboxes with emails to celebrate. 😉

Yes, I imagine like everyone else, you’ve had an inbox full of people asking for your consent:

Martin Belam wrote about this for The Guardian:

Overall though, many people’s inboxes are beginning to resemble the desperate last throes of a romance, clogged up as company after company sends out GDPR email with plaintive subject lines such as “Please stay with us”, “Let’s stay together” and “Don’t leave”. Comedian Mark Watson took it to the next level, sending out an email headed “Do you love me enough to click?”

If nothing else, this painful weeding process triggered by the EU’s regulatory intervention have made people aware of how much information has been captured about them - and the surveillance capitalism that underlies it. Everyone I have spoken to has had at least one e-mail from a company they’ve had no dealings with, and had no idea how they got on their lists.

Academic Shoshana Zuboff defines the characteristics of surveillance capitalism as:

  1. The drive toward more and more data extraction and analysis
  2. The development of new contractual forms using computer-monitoring and automation
  3. The desire to personalize and customize the services offered to users of digital platforms
  4. The use of the technological infrastructure to carry out continual experiments on its users and consumers.

And, yes, it feels sinister. As cyborg rights campaigner Aral Balkan puts it:

What if, when I write down a thought on my phone to remember it later, what I am actually doing is extending my mind, and thereby extending my self using the phone.

Today, we are all cyborgs. This is not to say that we implant ourselves with technology but that we extend our biological capabilities using technology. We are sharded beings; with parts of our selves spread across and augmented by our everyday things.

From that perspective, monitoring of the data we produce is actually monitoring of us — our digital egos aren’t data shadows of us as much as extensions of us into the digital realm. But the largely invisible nature of this tracking doesn’t trigger the same revulsion that the mechanisms needed to track us physically in the same way would.

This has become an uncomfortable norm. But how did we get there?

Digital’s original sin

In journalism, some digital theorists talk about the digital journalism “original sin” of giving away news for free. It’s arguable whether that’s true or not — a number of outlets tried to sell news, and failed — but certainly we’ve seen a version of that in digital generally. During the last 90s and early 2000s, Silicon Valley thinking rapidly embraced the idea that you should build a user base first, and then figure out how to monetise it later.

How on earth was this sustainable? The massive influx of venture capital into the booming startup space allowed people to build free products - and that was a fantastic route to user growth. They formed a reinforcing loop - all their competitors were free, so new entrants needed to be free, so we, the consumers, got used to free products.

The major route to monetisation quickly became advertising, and that advertising could be so much more effective if you track data implicitly given to you by your users through their actions, and so a monetisation method was born. Of course, with venture capital comes the need for an exit, through a sale or a float, and the needs of the markets slowly push a business that was once predicted on, say, search or social networking, to a data collection and monetisation business, that uses, say, search or social networking to do that collection.

And once the idea takes root, it spreads. Zuboff:

The game is no longer about sending you a mail order catalogue or even about targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life –your reality—in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit.

Our original sin

So, to stretch the original sin metaphor a little further, at least some of the blame for the rise or surveillance capitalism must be ours. Like Eve, we let ourselves be talked into taking something free from the digital tree of knowledge, without thought to the consequences. And then, we got used to getting something for the illusion of nothing. But it was always an illusion. We were selling ourselves, and our lives, for the benefits we got. To mix my theological metaphors, it was a faustian pact that we weren’t aware we were making.

And, as a result, we have been driven from the more idealistic internet of 15 years ago to a more ruthless, corporate-controlled environment that stifles innovation outside that of a few mega corporations.

That’s not good for us — or for innovative businesses’ ability to compete. The GDPR move from government is one step to reversing the mistakes of the past. But the other is down to us: we need to make smarter, informed choices about the value of our data. But we also need to consider paying for services we value, so we don’t have to be sold ourselves to fund them.

Surveillance capitalism could only rise because capitalism demands exchange: if you’re getting something for free, value needs to be extracted from you at some point. And surveillance capitalism makes that as painless as possible in the short term. The long term pain has only just become clear to many of us: and it may get worse before it gets better.

But let’s make it better. Let’s fix it. It started today, as my name and data disappears from many mailing lists or apps it used to be on. But that’s just short-term fix. We need a deeper digital fix to move the digital economy forwards.


Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash