In Conversation: The age of surveillance capitalism - 5 Feb 2019 12:30 – 5 Feb 2019 14:30

An extract from Shoshana Zuboff at the event:

So what is surveillance capitalism? In many ways, surveillance capitalism diverges from the history of capitalism as I see it. But there is one way in which it follows in the traditions of capitalism.

Many historians over the decades, and indeed centuries, have written about the way that capitalism evolves by taking things, claiming things that exist outside the marketplace, outside the market dynamic, and bringing them into the market dynamic, thus converting them into commodities that can be sold and can be purchased.

Famously, industrial capitalism claimed nature, meadows, rivers, forests, things that live in their own space and time outside of the marketplace, bringing them into the market dynamic, where they are reborn as real estate, land that can be sold and purchased.

Similarly, work, the things that, activities that people did in their homes, in their cottages, in their gardens, in their fields, bringing it into the market dynamic that it could be sold as labour, wage labour, in a new kind of marketplace.

Surveillance capitalism continues this tradition, but with what I regard as a dark twist. And that is, it claims private human experience, our inner lives, our daily lives, as a free source of raw material for a new kind of production process.

In this production process, our experience is translated into behavioural data. Those data are combined with world historic computational capabilities. Today we call this Artificial Intelligence, Machine Intelligence, Machine Learning.

And as a result of that combination, what is produced are predictions, predictions about our future behaviour. And these predictions about our future behaviour are then sold and purchased in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in behavioural futures, like wheat, or pork bellies, or spot trading in the oil markets.

But now it is what we are likely to do, now, soon, and later, that is the target of interest and of economic exchange. This logic that I've just described to you was first invented at Google in 2001 in the heat of financial emergency during the bursting of the dot com bubble. But context then was online targeted advertising.

And if you zoom out from that context just a little bit, you can see how it follows the logic that I just defined. Online targeted advertisers are people who want to know about your future behaviour. In that case, it was specifically your future click behaviour.

And what Google was selling, what it discovered that it could sell, was that as it was trying to rescue itself in this moment of financial emergency, it found that there were collateral data from the search process, data that in those days was called data exhaust, or digital exhaust, digital waste.

It was haphazardly collected in servers and barely organised for use. It was discovered that these data, these collateral behavioural data, had predictive power. And it was there, in the heat of financial emergency, that they decided to use those data, combined with their computational capabilities, in order to predict where you were likely to click.

And at that time, they told their advertisers, you are no longer going to decide where your ads go. You are no longer going to select keywords and decide what pages to put your ads on. We're going to tell you where to put your ads based on these predictions of future click behaviour.

And that's going to be a black box. It's our magic. You just have to accept the result. But if you do so, you will make a lot of money. The advertisers baulked, but eventually they agreed.

Between the year 2000 and the year 2004, when Google IPO'd, and the world finally got a glimpse at its revenue line, it was discovered that its revenues had increased by 3,590% on the back of this new economic logic.

And it turns out that this logic is no more confined to online advertising than mass production was confined to the fabrication of the Model T, where it too was first fully proposed, and invented, and applied.

Surveillance capitalism spread from Google to Facebook, with Google executive Sheryl Sandberg. From Facebook, it became the default option in the tech sector in Silicon Valley. Every startup and every app. Why? Because this economic logic meant a fast track to monetization.

Now, fast forwarding a couple, nearly two decades, what we see is that this logic has spread across our economy. It now has imposed itself in every economic sector, in the insurance sector, in finance, and health, and education. We see these behavioural future markets being constituted in the same economic logic.

Most recently, in a kind of splendid full circle, coming full circle in history, the CEO of Ford Motor Company, facing a global slump in automobile sales, announced, you know what, I want profit margins like Google and Facebook, profit margins that come on the back of surveillance capitalism.

And so, he announces, we have a 100 million people driving around in Ford vehicles. Think of all the data we can stream from these folks, not only where they're going, but how they're driving, who they're driving with, what they're saying in their car.

Where do they go shop? Where do they go eat? And on and on. And, he says, we can combine these data with all the data we have from Ford credit, which, he says, already knows everything about you.

We combine these data, now we're in a league with Google and Facebook. Who would not want to buy behavioural data? Who would not want to buy predictions from us? We want the price earnings ratios that Google and Facebook enjoy.

So this is how surveillance capitalism has, in my view, metastasized across our economies. Why do I use the word metastasized? And here, I'm going to just say a couple of more things, and then bring it to a close, and we'll start our discussion.

You can tell from my remarks that I do not have a generous view toward this economic logic. There are many reasons, and I'll start with some of the basics.

Every piece of research, every survey, everything done really since the early 2000s, when you talk to people who are engaged in these systems as users, and you expose these backstage operations, people say, that's awful, I don't want anything to do with this, how do I protect myself?

Event details

Society is at a turning point. The heady optimism that accompanied the advent of the Internet is gone, replaced by a deep unease. Technologies that were meant to liberate us have exacerbated social inequalities and stoked explosive political climates across the world. Tech companies gather our information online and sell it to the highest bidder, whether government or retailer. In this world of surveillance capitalism, profit depends not only on predicting our behaviour but modifying it too.

Shoshana Zuboff, Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School, was in conversation with Geoff Mulgan, Nesta's Chief Executive. Shoshana examined the threat of unprecedented power, free from democratic oversight, as addressed in her latest book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power.