Honestly, when we were still in the dot-com boom days, I felt like a schmuck. I had an Internet start- up — so did everybody else. It was unprofitable, like everybody else’s, and how hard is that? But when we became profitable, I felt like we had built a real business.”
Brin was a capitalist all right, but it was a mutation of capitalism unlike anything the world had seen.
Once we understand this equation, it becomes clear that demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the Internet is like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck or a cow to give up chewing. Such demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival. How can we expect companies whose economic existence depends upon behavioral surplus to cease capturing behavioral data voluntarily? It’s like asking for suicide.
More behavioral surplus for Google
The imperatives of surveillance capitalism mean that there must always be more behavioral surplus for Google and others to turn into surveillance assets, master as prediction, sell into exclusive markets for future behavior, and transform into capital. At Google and its new holding company called Alphabet, for example, every operation and investment aims to increasing the harvest of behavioral surplus from people, bodies, things, processes, and places in both the virtual and the real world. This is how a sixty-seven hour day dawns and darkens in an emerald sky. Nothing short of a social revolt that revokes collective agreement to the practices associated with the dispossession of behavior will alter surveillance capitalism’s claim to manifest data destiny.
What is the new vaccine? We need to reimagine how to intervene in the specific mechanisms that produce surveillance profits and in so doing reassert the primacy of the liberal order in the twenty-first century capitalist project. In undertaking this challenge we must be mindful that contesting Google, or any other surveillance capitalist, on the grounds of monopoly is a 20th century solution to a 20th century problem that, while still vitally important, does not necessarily disrupt surveillance capitalism’s commercial equation. We need new interventions that interrupt, outlaw, or regulate 1) the initial capture of behavioral surplus, 2) the use of behavioral surplus as free raw material, 3) excessive and exclusive concentrations of the new means of production, 4) the manufacture of prediction products, 5) the sale of prediction products, 6) the use of prediction products for third-order operations of modification, influence, and control, and 5) the monetization of the results of these operations. This is necessary for society, for people, for the future, and it is also necessary to restore the healthy evolution of capitalism itself.
A coup from above
In the conventional narrative of the privacy threat, institutional secrecy has grown, and individual privacy rights have been eroded. But that framing is misleading, because privacy and secrecy are not opposites but rather moments in a sequence. Secrecy is an effect; privacy is the cause. Exercising one’s right to privacy produces choice, and one can choose to keep something secret or to share it. Privacy rights thus confer decision rights, but these decision rights are merely the lid on the Pandora’s Box of the liberal order. Inside the box, political and economic sovereignty meet and mingle with even deeper and subtler causes: the idea of the individual, the emergence of the self, the felt experience of free will.