I had skipped centuries from the Benthams’ dark enthusiasms and stumbled into a new incarnation of the dream that I called the „information panopticon”, where each day breeds a deeper sense of anticipatory conformity circumscribing behavior to evade detection in ways that are so subtle, we eventually drop them from awareness. The challenge for the overseers had shifted from the architecture of buildings or the tedious labor of administrative records to that of information systems designed to produce automated, continuous, frictionless, perfect accounts available for zoom-in detail and zoom-out patterns any time, all the time, everywhere.
It was around then that I first articulated Zuboff’s three laws: First, that everything that can be automated will be automated. Second, that everything that can be informated will be informated. And most important to us now, the third law: In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention. In the decades that followed, American workers, and many others around the world, learned the truth of this formulation as workplace surveillance and its consequences became a feature of their daily routines.
A Different Wind
For a while it seemed that the Internet was borne to us on a different wind. It was personal, as many forged their Internet connections outside of the hierarchical spaces of the workplace. With the Internet came the ultimate, so far, individualizing tools and resources: my email address, my smartphone, my desktop, laptop, pad, my bookmarks...Outside of work we were free to express ourselves, search, learn, and connect at will. Our hunger, our questions, and our zeal summoned all sorts of new capabilities into existence: Google searches, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, iTunes, networks of friends, strangers, colleagues, all reaching out beyond the old institutional boundaries in a kind of exultation of hunting and gathering and sharing information for every purpose or none at all.
There was, and I believe there still is, evidence of a wholly new economic and social logic at work that I call „distributed capitalism.” It recognizes the user as the real source of new economic value. It is on our side. It bypasses the old legacy systems to bring all kinds of assets –– music, college courses, books, teachers, health information, social connections, guitar instruction, Chinese subway maps ––– directly to individuals at prices we can afford, and it enables us to configure those assets as we chose, anywhere, anytime. This is the promise at the heart of the iPhone, Google, Facebook, and thousands of other companies, websites, and applications.
Zuboff’s Third Law and the Lords of Silicon Valley
Shortly after the Guardian first disclosed NSA documents obtained from Edward Snowden, journalist David Kirkpatrick, a Silicon Valley luminary and author of The Facebook Effect, published a piece on LinkedIn.com, “Did Obama Just Destroy the U.S. Internet Industry?” Kirkpatrick was vehement that the success of America’s iconic Internet companies –– Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, Apple, and YouTube –– depended on the extraordinary value they created for their users “by fostering an openness and landscape for free expression and dialogue that is unprecedented.” Now, he claimed, that historic success was threatened by forced secret participation in the NSA’s PRISM program.