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Google as a Fortune Teller : The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism

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Unoriginal Sin

The significance of behavioral surplus was quickly camouflaged, both at Google and eventually throughout the Internet industry, with labels like “digital exhaust,” “digital breadcrumbs,” and so on. These euphemisms for behavioral surplus operate as ideological filters, in exactly the same way that the earliest maps of the North American continent labeled whole regions with terms like “heathens,” “infidels,” “idolaters,”  “primitives,” “vassals,” or “rebels.”  On the strength of those labels, native peoples, their places and claims, were erased from the invaders’ moral and legal equations, legitimating their acts of taking and breaking in the name of Church and Monarchy.

We are the native peoples now whose tacit claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own behavior. They are erased in an astonishing and audacious act of dispossession by surveillance that claims its right to ignore every boundary in its thirst for knowledge of and influence over the most detailed nuances of our behavior.  For those who wondered about the logical completion of the global processes of commodification, the answer is that they complete themselves in the dispossession of our intimate quotidian reality, now reborn as behavior to be monitored and modified, bought and sold.

The process that began in cyberspace mirrors the nineteenth century capitalist expansions that preceded the age of imperialism. Back then, as Hannah Arendt described it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “the so-called laws of capitalism were actually allowed to create realities” as they traveled to less developed regions where law did not follow. “The secret of the new happy fulfillment,” she wrote, “was precisely that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning classes.” There, “money could finally beget money,” without having to go “the long way of investment in production…”

“The original sin of simple robbery”

For Arendt, these foreign adventures of capital clarified an essential mechanism of capitalism. Marx had developed the idea of “primitive accumulation” as a big-bang theory –– Arendt called it “the original sin of simple robbery” –– in which the taking of lands and natural resources was the foundational event that enabled capital accumulation and the rise of the market system. The capitalist expansions of the 1860s and 1870s demonstrated, Arendt wrote, that this sort of original sin had to be repeated over and over, “lest the motor of capital accumulation suddenly die down.”

In his book The New Imperialism, geographer and social theorist David Harvey built on this insight with his notion of “accumulation by dispossession.”  “What accumulation by dispossession does,” he writes,  “is to release a set of assets…at very low (and in some instances zero) cost. Overaccumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to profitable use…It can also reflect attempts by determined entrepreneurs…to ‘join the system’ and seek the benefits of capital accumulation.”

Breakthrough into “the system”

The process by which behavioral surplus led to the discovery of surveillance capitalism exemplifies this pattern. It is the foundational act of dispossession for a new logic of capitalism built on profits from surveillance that paved the way for Google to become a capitalist enterprise. Indeed, in 2002, Google’s first profitable year, founder Sergey Brin relished his breakthrough into “the system”, as he told Levy,

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