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Shoshana Zuboff : A Digital Declaration

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The largest and most successful „big data“ company is Google, because it is the most visited website and therefore has the largest data exhaust. AdWords, Google’s algo-rithmic method for targeting online advertising, gets its edge from access to the most data exhaust.  Google gives away products like “search” in order to increase the amount of data exhaust it has available to harvest for its customers— its advertisers and other data buyers.  To quote a popular 2013 book on „big data“, “every action a user performs is considered a signal to be analyzed and fed back into the system.”  Facebook,Linked In, Yahoo, Twitter, and thousands of companies and apps  do something similar. On the strength of these capabilities, Google’s ad revenues were $21 billion in 2008 and climbed to over $50 billion in 2013. By February 2014, Google’s $400 billion dollar market value had edged out Exxon for the #2 spot in market capitalization.

V. “BIG DATA” IS BIG CONTRABAND

What can an understanding of declarations reveal about “big data?” I begin by suggesting that „big data“ is a big euphemism. As Orwell  once observed, euphemisms are used in politics, war, and business “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. Euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation methods” or “ethnic cleansing” distract us from the ugly truth behind the words.

The ugly truth here is that much of „big data“ is plucked from our lives without our knowledge or informed consent. It is the fruit of a rich array of surveillance practices designed to be invisible and undetectable as we make our way across the virtual and real worlds.  The pace of these developments is accelerating: drones, Google Glass, wearable technologies, the Internet of Everything  (which is perhaps the biggest euphemism of all).

These surveillance practices represent profound harms—material, psychological, social, and political— that we are only beginning to understand and codify, largely because of the secret nature of these operations and how long it’s taken for us to understand them. As the recent outcry over the British National Health Service’s plan to sell patient data to insurance companies underscored, one person’s „big data“ is another person’s stolen goods.  The neutral technocratic euphemism, „big data“, can  more accurately be labeled “big contraband” or “big pirate booty.”  My interest here is less in  the details of these surveillance operations than in how they have been allowed to stand and what can be done about it.

VI.  THE INTERNET COMPANIES DECLARE THE FUTURE

The answer to how these practices have been allowed to stand is straightforward: Decla-ration.  We never said they could take these things from us. They simply declared them to be theirs for the taking—- by taking them. All sorts of institutional facts were established with the words and deeds of this declaration.

Users were constituted as an unpaid workforce, whether slaves or volunteers is something for reasonable people to debate.  Our output was asserted as “exhaust” — waste without value—that it might be expropriated without resistance.  A wasteland is easily claimed and colonized. Who would protest the transformation of rubbish into value?  Because the new data assets were produced through surveillance, they constitute a new asset class that I call “surveillance assets.”  Surveillance assets, as we’ve seen, attract significant capital and investment that I suggest we call “surveillance capital.”  The declaration thus established a radically disembedded and extractive variant of information capitalism that can I label  “surveillance capitalism.”

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