There was a time when we laid responsibility for the assault on behavioral data at the door of the state and its security agencies. Later, we also blamed the cunning practices of a handful of banks, data brokers, and Internet companies. Some attribute the assault to an inevitable “age of big data,” as if it were possible to conceive of data born pure and blameless, data suspended in some celestial place where facts sublimate into truth.
Capitalism has been hijacked by surveillance
I’ve come to a different conclusion: The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative surveillance project that subverts the “normal” evolutionary mechanisms associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.
Surveillance capitalism is a novel economic mutation bred from the clandestine coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three decades, especially in the Anglo economies. It is an unprecedented market form that roots and flourishes in lawless space. It was first discovered and consolidated at Google, then adopted by Facebook, and quickly diffused across the Internet. Cyberspace was its birthplace because, as Google/Alphabet Chairperson Eric Schmidt and his coauthor, Jared Cohen, celebrate on the very first page of their book about the digital age, “the online world is not truly bound by terrestrial laws…it’s the world’s largest ungoverned space.”
While surveillance capitalism taps the invasive powers of the Internet as the source of capital formation and wealth creation, it is now, as I have suggested, poised to transform commercial practice across the real world too. An analogy is the rapid spread of mass production and administration throughout the industrialized world in the early twentieth century, but with one major caveat. Mass production was interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.
Internet access as a fundamental human right
We once fled to the Internet as solace and solution, our needs for effective life thwarted by the distant and increasingly ruthless operations of late twentieth century capitalism. In less than two decades after the Mosaic web browser was released to the public enabling easy access to the World Wide Web, a 2010 BBC poll found that 79% of people in 26 countries considered Internet access to be a fundamental human right. This is the Scylla and Charybdis of our plight. It is nearly impossible to imagine effective social participation ––from employment, to education, to healthcare–– without Internet access and know-how, even as these once flourishing networked spaces fall to a new and even more exploitative capitalist regime. It’s happened quickly and without our understanding or agreement. This is because the regime’s most poignant harms, now and later, have been difficult to grasp or theorize, blurred by extreme velocity and camouflaged by expensive and illegible machine operations, secretive corporate practices, masterful rhetorical misdirection, and purposeful cultural misappropriation.