What are examples of counter-declarations? Google and other Internet companies have been the targets of many privacy-related lawsuits. Some of these efforts have imposed real constraints, such as prohibiting Google Street View cars to extract personal data from computers inside homes, or the class action that resulted in Facebook’s suspension of its invasive “Beacon” program. Legal actions like these can limit certain practices for a time, but they do not topple the institutionalized facts of surveillance capitalism in the target or other companies. Encryption is another counter-declaration. When we encrypt, we acknowledge the reality of the thing we are trying to evade. Rather than undoing that reality, encryption ignites an arms race with the very thing it disputes. Privacy tools like “opt out” or “do not track” are another example. When I click on “do not track,” what I am really saying is “do not track me.” My choice does not stop the company from tracking everyone else.
I want to be clear that I am not critical of counter-declarations. They are necessary and vital. We need more of them. But the point I do want to make is that counter-declarations alone will not stop this train. They run a race that they can never win. They may lead to a balance of power, but they will not in and of themselves construct an alternative to surveillance capitalism.
What will enable us to move forward in a new way? As I see it, we will have to move on to a new kind of declaration that I am calling a “synthetic declaration.” By this I mean a declaration that synthesizes the opposing facts of declaration and counter-declaration. It arises from— and draws to it —new and deeper wellsprings of collective intentionality. It asserts an original vision. If the counter-declaration is check, the synthetic declaration is checkmate.
Does information capitalism have to be based on surveillance. No. But surveillance capitalism has emerged as a leading version of information capitalism. We need new synthetic declarations to define and support other variants of information capitalism that participate in the social order, value people, and reflect democratic principles. New synthetic declarations can provide the framework for a new kind of double movement appropriate to our time.
Are there examples? There are glimmers. The past year brought us Ed Snowden, who asserted a new reality at great personal sacrifice by claiming this to be a world in which the information he provided should be shared information. Wikileaks has also operated in this spirit. The EU Court’s decision on the right to be forgotten points in the direction of a synthetic declaration by establishing new facts for the online world. (In my view, it also faltered, perhaps inadvertently, by also establishing new facts that grant Google inappropriate new powers.
Mathias Doepfner’s open letter to Google chairperson Eric Schmidt, published in FAZ last spring, called for a synthetic declaration in the form of a unique European narrative of the digital, one that is not subjugated to the institutional facts asserted by the Internet giants.