Shoshana Zuboff : A Digital Declaration

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This new market form entails wholly new moral and social complexities along with new risks. For example, if the declarations that established surveillance capitalism are chal-lenged, we might discover that „big data“ are larded with illicit surveillance assets who’s ownership is subject to legal contest and liability.  In an  alternative social and legal regime, surveillance assets could  become toxic assets strewn through the world’s data flows in much the same way that bad mortgage debt was baked into financial instruments that abruptly lost value when their status function was challenged by new facts.

What’s key to understand here is that this logic of “accumulation by surveillance” is a wholly new breed.  In the past, populations were the source of employees and con-sumers. Under surveillance capitalism, populations are not to be employed and served.  Instead, they are to be harvested for behavioral data.


Why is it that the declaration of surveillance capitalism has met so little resistance? Searle’s reasoning is a good guide.  Agreement?  Yes, there were and are plenty of people who think surveillance capitalism is a reasonable business model. (We’ll have to leave why they think so to another discussion.)  Authority?  Yes. The tech leaders have been imbued with the authority of expertise and idolized as entrepreneurs. Persuasion?  Absolutely. All the neoliberal buzzwords of entrepreneurialism, creative destruction, disruption, etc. persuaded many that these developments were right and necessary. A quid pro quo? Yes, powerfully so. The new free services of search and connection were exactly what we needed and have become essential to social participation.  When Facebook went down last month, a lot of Americans called 911 (emergency services).

Was there any use of force or other means to foreclose alternatives?  No military force was needed. Instead, as the new logic became the dominant business model for online companies and start-ups, it spawned millions of related institutionalized facts—  ancillary and intermediary business services, professional specializations, new language, IPOs, tons of cash, network effects, unprecedented concentrations of information power.  All these limit our sense that there can be any alternative. And finally, how about a lack of understanding? This is the most salient reason of all. Most people did not and could not appreciate the extent to which the new “facts” depended upon surveillance.  This colossal asymmetry of understanding helps explain why Edward Snowden was necessary.  Somebody had to be Ed Snowden

What kind of  resistance has been offered and why has it failed to stop the spread of surveillance capitalism?  Here I depart from Searle in order to introduce two distinct varieties of declaration that I think can help us understand more about how the future unfolds. I suggest that the kind of resistance that has been offered so far takes the form of what I call the “counter-declaration.”  A counter-declaration is defensive. It addresses the institutional facts asserted by the declaration. The process of countering seeks to impose constraints or achieve compromise, but it does not annihilate the contested fact. In addressing those facts, it invariably increases their power. Negotiation inevitably legitimates the other. This is why many governments refuse to negotiate with terrorists. As Searle noted, even talking about something or referring to it increases its reality by treating it as a thing that is already real.  It’s a classic quick-sand situation in that the more you fight it, the more it sucks you in.

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