Surveillance capitalism does not erode these decision rights –– along with their causes and their effects –– but rather it redistributes them. Instead of many people having some rights, these rights have been concentrated within the surveillance regime, opening up an entirely new dimension of social inequality. The full implications of this development have preoccupied me for many years now, and with each day my sense of danger intensifies. The space of this essay does not allow me to follow these facts to their conclusions, but I offer this thought in summary.
Surveillance capitalism reaches beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm. It accumulates not only surveillance assets and capital, but also rights. This unilateral redistribution of rights sustains a privately administered compliance regime of rewards and punishments that is largely free from detection or sanction. It operates without meaningful mechanisms of consent either in the traditional form of “exit, voice, or loyalty” associated with markets or in the form of democratic oversight expressed in law and regulation.
Profoundly anti-democratic power
In result, surveillance capitalism conjures a profoundly anti-democratic power that qualifies as a coup from above: not a coup d’état, but rather a coup des gens, an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty. It challenges principles and practices of self-determination ––in psychic life and social relations, politics and governance –– for which humanity has suffered long and sacrificed much. For this reason alone, such principles should not be forfeit to the unilateral pursuit of a disfigured capitalism. Worse still would be their forfeit to our own ignorance, learned helplessness, inattention, inconvenience, habituation, or drift. This, I believe, is the ground on which our contests for the future will be fought.
Hannah Arendt once observed that indignation is the natural human response to that which degrades human dignity. Referring to her work on the origins of totalitarianism she wrote, “If I describe these conditions without permitting my indignation to interfere, then I have lifted this particular phenomenon out of its context in human society and have thereby robbed it of part of its nature, deprived it of one of its important inherent qualities.”
So it is for me and perhaps for you: The bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.