Taming this new force depends upon careful naming. This symbiosis of naming and taming is vividly illustrated in the recent history of HIV research, and I offer it as analogy. For three decades scientists aimed to create a vaccine that followed the logic of earlier cures, training the immune system to produce neutralizing antibodies, but mounting data revealed unanticipated behaviors of the HIV virus that defy the patterns of other infectious diseases.
HIV research as analogy
The tide began to turn at the International AIDS Conference in 2012, when new strategies were presented that rely on a close understanding of the biology of rare HIV carriers whose blood produces natural antibodies. Research began to shift toward methods that reproduce this self-vaccinating response. A leading researcher announced, “We know the face of the enemy now, and so we have some real clues about how to approach the problem.”
The point for us is that every successful vaccine begins with a close understanding of the enemy disease. We tend to rely on mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes. I am thinking of the twentieth century’s totalitarian nightmares or the monopolistic predations of Gilded Age capitalism. But the vaccines we’ve developed to fight those earlier threats are not sufficient or even appropriate for the novel challenges we face. It’s like we’re hurling snowballs at a smooth marble wall only to watch them slide down its façade, leaving nothing but a wet smear: a fine paid here, an operational detour there.
An evolutionary dead-end
I want to say plainly that surveillance capitalism is not the only current modality of information capitalism, nor is it the only possible model for the future. Its fast track to capital accumulation and rapid institutionalization, however, has made it the default model of information capitalism. The questions I pose are these: Will surveillance capitalism become the dominant logic of accumulation in our time or, will it be an evolutionary dead-end –– a toothed bird in capitalism’s longer journey? What will an effective vaccine entail?
A cure depends upon many individual, social, and legal adaptations, but I am convinced that fighting the “enemy disease” cannot begin without a fresh grasp of the novel mechanisms that account for surveillance capitalism’s successful transformation of investment into capital. This has been one focus of my work in a new book, Master or Slave: The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, which will be published early next year. In the short space of this essay, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this problem.
Fortune telling and selling
New economic logics and their commercial models are discovered by people in a time and place and then perfected through trial and error. Ford discovered and systematized mass production. General Motors institutionalized mass production as a new phase of capitalist development with the discovery and perfection of large-scale administration and professional management. In our time, Google is to surveillance capitalism what Ford and General Motors were to mass-production and managerial capitalism a century ago: discoverer, inventor, pioneer, role model, lead practitioner, and diffusion hub.