Reading "Surveillance Capitalism" Through a Decentralized Lens
While most are at least vaguely aware of the prevalence of widespread data collection practices in the digital world today, few have explored them seriously, and even fewer have taken the time to fully understand, and broadly consider the consequences of these systems. For those interested in better understanding these models, “Surveillance Capitalism” is essential reading.
For many start-ups and emerging projects in the blockchain and decentralized space, disrupting the world’s dominant technology platforms is frequently cited as a central raison d’être. Primary amongst arguments cited for such disruption are the negative impacts upon innovation that results when a few players dominate industries in the way that Facebook and Google dominate, respectively, social media and web search. Other arguments speak to the negative economic consequences, both for individuals and across entire industries, when sectors are controlled by a small number of firms. No less important is the question of freedom of expression, for when a few companies act as gatekeepers they can subject actors across a space to a variety of restrictive pressures. The recent history of Twitter represents a clear example of this, as it has become common for accounts to be suspended or banned when particular words or phrases intersect ‘forbidden’ lists, regardless of an author’s intent. Perhaps most widely known amongst the standard criticisms of the major tech platforms is the question of digital surveillance and the collection of data from users of these platforms. While widely described as a question of privacy, one that many find unsettling given its somewhat difficult to define nature and the unknowability of the extent to which data about specific individuals is collected and analyzed, not to mention how it is ultimately deployed, this issue generally remains a vast unknown for most.
Blockchain-based start-ups across a range of industries and applications frequently argue for their ability to address these concerns, or elements of them, through a variety of architectural elements they believe will allow them to develop ecosystems that are deliberately fairer, more inclusive, less exploitative, and more respectful of the privacy of stakeholders. But while these claims can be difficult to evaluate—as is the case with startups in any industry—another concern is that many of the key characteristics and shortcomings of the existing tech ecosystem, as well as the structure and objectives of major players and the larger political economy within which they exists are not always well understood. In this regard, a better understanding of these issues is critical in more effectively designing new projects that might effectively address some of the tech ecosystem’s weaknesses.
Fortunately, a number of recent books have made important contributions to understanding elements of the current tech landscape and its contexts and implications. One such work is Shosana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Surveillance Capitalism), a study that is easily one of the most thoughtful, penetrating, and insightful works to consider different facets of these questions of data privacy and data collection.
While most are at least vaguely aware of the prevalence of widespread data collection practices in the digital world today, few have explored them seriously, and even fewer have taken the time to fully understand, and broadly consider the consequences of these systems. For those interested in better understanding these models, Surveillance Capitalism is essential reading. Not only has Surveillance Capitalism been widely, and justifiably, recognized as one of 2019’s more important books, it makes a strong and unique contribution to arguments for decentralized systems’ potential to address many of the most egregious impacts of the dominant tech regime. These arguments for decentralized systems are, ironically, made almost inadvertently, for Zuboff herself appears at times either unaware or dismissive of the potential of decentralized systems. Yet despite this apparent weakness, Surveillance Capitalism remains an important book, and understanding Zuboff’s arguments while considering them through a decentralized lens allows her arguments to be extended while shedding new light on decentralized systems’ potential to meaningfully impact the world.
Reframing the Scope of Surveillance Capitalism
Zuboff’s careful consideration of the way today’s dominant technology platforms pursue an unparalleled capture and processing of the inadvertent traces of our online existences that have come to be known as the ‘behavioral surplus’ is a deeply penetrating analysis. She documents surveillance capitalists transforming collected data, known as their ‘raw materials,’ into the feedstock of an unprecedented system of behavioral prediction, and ultimately behavioral modification. In doing so Zuboff presents a powerful and disturbing image of a system that few have contemplated so insightfully. Zuboff’s work sheds new light on the operations of this tech regime, and arguably our broader political economic system, while raising important, and disturbing, questions about the ultimate impacts of these operations. Surveillance Capitalism’s strengths are undoubtedly many, and the questions the book raises are wide-ranging, compelling, and worthy of careful consideration, yet a close examination of Zuboff’s arguments is also useful in revealing several weaknesses and missed opportunities, as well as more than one manner in which her already outstanding work can be meaningfully strengthened.
These missed opportunities are perhaps best attributed to several choices Zuboff makes in framing her story. These decisions, primarily related to her reading of history and her framing of the boundaries of her enquiry, particularly her characterization of capitalism and its nature, as well as her reading of its history, subsequently shape key aspects of her enquiry. Most unfortunately, these limitations ultimately delimit central aspects of her analysis, her conclusions, and perhaps most significantly the nature of her calls for resistance in the face of the challenges surveillance capitalism represents for both individuals and society at large.
These missed opportunities can also be considered particularly relevant to those coming to the book with an interest in decentralized systems. Given that Zuboff’s most urgent, yet most underdeveloped theme throughout the book is the need for resistance to the juggernaut that is surveillance capitalism, it is somewhat ironic that it is precisely in considering the potential of the very decentralized technologies that Zuboff’s disdains in Surveillance Capitalism that perhaps the most meaningful paths of resistance begin to emerge. Thus, considering the role of decentralized systems as potential vehicles of resistance against the surveillance capitalists, in parallel with a reframing of the historical context Zuboff established as the context of her study, allows us to reconconsider and extend core elements of her already powerful analysis. Perhaps most critically, it allows both an appreciation of the potential of decentralized systems in a new light even as doing so allows substantially more promising modes of resistance to surveillance capitalism to emerge.
What is ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ ?
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism begins with an extended description of what surveillance capitalism itself is. Thoughtfully illustrating how surveillance capitalism represents neither a technology or assemblage of technologies for the collection of personal data, nor a mere effort to organize or sell the individual profiles that are developed from data that individuals leave behind as they traverse digital ecosystems, Zuboff instead illustrates how surveillance capitalism extends far beyond either of these efforts into more ambitious, and more troubling realms.
Many are aware of the extent to which consumer data is collected and analyzed today as part of a system of creating dedicated consumer profiles. Yet, as Zuboff eloquently describes, surveillance capitalism is a system that merely takes as its initial premise the creation of complex, multi-faceted portraits of individuals and consumers. And even though the extent to which these portraits are themselves developed from unprecedentedly wide-ranging collections of data is already somewhat troubling, this remains in fact merely where her arguments begin. As she explains, the logics of surveillance capitalism, particularly the desire to assemble all-encompassing views of individuals and comprehensive models of behaviour and desires, compels its practitioners not simply to cast a wide net in their pursuit of data, but to move far beyond what traditionally has reasonably been considered public or acceptable consumer data. Disregarding established norms and practices of the private or non-commercial aspects of individual lives, these profiles are instead built upon expansive, open-ended, and ultimately profoundly intrusive sets of data. In these constructions, every mouse click, every like, and every downloaded app, much of which had previously been considered private and beyond the bounds of commercial exploitation, is appropriated as the legitimate property of surveillance capitalists through surveillance friendly default techniques, hidden default preferences, opaque EULAs and architecture structured to encourage users to unwittingly consent to the use of their data. Significantly, as the surveillance capitalist protocols develop, the endless search for additional raw materials requires the continuous expansion of their data collecting pipelines. This is most apparent as data inputs begin to be sourced beyond the merely digital, moving into the physical world where location data (Pokémon Go), the words uttered in one’s home (Amazon’s Echo), and measures of physical activity (Fitness Tracker) equally become inputs into these increasingly multi-faceted, ever more detailed and refined composite portraits. These profiles, in turn, become the basis for predictions of future behaviors that are themselves deployed within what Zuboff terms ‘behavioral futures markets.’
Upon initial consideration, ‘behavioral futures markets’ almost appears worthy of dismissal as merely a fanciful name for advertising markets of the sort that continuously follow our online journeys. However, as Zuboff describes the way surveillance capitalists deploy their elaborately developed profiles towards the generation of predictions of future behaviours, such as clicking on ads, for which value increases the more the models prove effective, the relationship between data collection, predictive model building, and revenue becomes more clear. From here, it then becomes but a small step for surveillance capitalists to seek to reduce the uncertainty associated with their predictive activities, and thus emerges the incentive to move beyond merely predicting behaviours and instead beginning to intervene in actively influencing behaviours through a wide range of mechanisms and structures. At this point the more troubling nature of the problem posed by surveillance capitalism truly begins to emerge. This is because it is the incentive to shape behavior, in a way that far surpasses the well-understood manufacturing of desires that has long characterized the advertising industry, that in Zuboff’s telling distinguishes surveillance capitalism as a novel regime. This system is premised upon not merely analyzing the actions of or appealing to desires of consumers, but upon intervening to shape the behaviour of individuals in order to more effectively monetize the predictions made.
The mechanics of this influencing of individual future behaviours are themselves worthy of consideration, for they disturbingly illustrate the full range of manners through which surveillance capitalism functions. In particular, describing how ‘extraction was the first phase of a far more ambitious project,” Zuboff observes how, with data transformed into a series of detailed predictions concerning an individual’s expected behaviour, the ultimate intention then becomes “to produce behaviour that reliably, definitively, and certainly leads to desired commercial results.” In effect, validating, and monetizing, predictions is easier and more lucrative when the table is rigged and desired outcomes can also be actively encouraged.
These efforts to shape the actions of individuals are themselves composed of three distinct phases, “tuning,” “herding, and “conditioning,” that variously prod and encourage individuals, through a range of targeted digital interventions, towards specific outcomes. These practices of behavioral modification, orientated towards the commercial interests of the surveillance capitalist, call upon the work of behavioralist B.F. Skinner, who famously downplayed free will while exploring the wide-scale shaping of behaviour, what he termed “behavioral engineering.” In this case, such efforts employ previously unavailable technological means to pursue similar methods at unprecedented scale. The goal, as the surveillance capitalists articulate it, is the ability to influence behaviour without arousing awareness on the part of those being tuned, herded, and conditioned. As surveillance capitalists acknowledge, “human consciousness itself is a threat to surveillance revenues, as awareness endangers the larger project of behaviour modification,” should individuals retain the critical faculties enabling them to recognize, potentially even resist these efforts. Of concern, Zuboff notes, is that in “declaring the right to modify human action secretly and for profit, surveillance capitalism effectively exiles us from our own behaviour, shifting the locus of control over the future tense from “I will” to “You will,” in a manner consciously designed to reduce individuals to a state of continuously reacting to an endless series of prompts and nudges, a mental space consciously designed to preclude self-awareness and critical thinking.
The challenge, as Zuboff eloquently describes, is how to resist the power of the ubiquitous prompts and ‘suggestions’ intended to shape behaviour in the face of the power, knowledge, and resources of the surveillance capitalists? How to retain the mental space for critical reflection in the face of incessant nudges and prompts from the diversity of apps, sites, alerts, and messages not simply intended to capture our attention while tuning, herding, and conditioning us? While the question is often framed in terms of concentration and attention spans, Zuboff does an excellent job unpacking the broader impacts, both individual and collective, of these efforts.
Surveillance Capitalism as a Contingent Entity
A particular strength of Surveillance Capitalism lies in Zuboff’s ability to present surveillance capitalism as both a powerful new force of the type that is difficult to fully comprehend, much less imagine how to resist, while also successfully presenting surveillance capitalism as an evolving regime, shaped by individuals in light of complex circumstances within particular historic moments.
This strength of Zuboff’s work is particularly evident in her discussion of how the data-centric nature of the business model of surveillance capitalism operates, as well as her thoughtful, revealing discussion of how this model developed. Too often discussions of technology present static (and usually fanciful) images of technologies appearing to have fixed, singular forms and operating in transparent, uncomplicated manners that reflect the intentions of their creators. Zuboff, by contrast, presents a clear image of how surveillance capitalism itself evolved as a result of particular decisions, by particular individuals, at particular moments, and in the context of unique circumstances. However, far from a ‘Great Man’ version of history, where heroic individuals are presented as shaping developments through sheer force of will and against all odds, the story of the emerging regime of surveillance capitalism is one of contingencies and uncertain outcomes, strongly suggesting that the existing system was never a preordained outcome. This approach succeeds in illustrating how our current environment of surveillance capitalism developed over time, and allows Zuboff to further elucidate the logics of surveillance capitalism by examining key moments. Equally, this framing of a dynamic, contingent system is a critical one in creating openings to argue that resistance and alternative systems are possible, for a system that developed as a result of specific decisions can be remade or restructured into developing alternative structures via different decisions.
Significant examples include an enlightening recounting of seminal moments in this little known history. For instance, Zuboff discusses how Google, today a luminary in the world of surveillance capitalism, in late 2000 found itself with a powerful search engine but effectively little in the way of a business model. The decision to overturn the company’s existing aversion to advertising, as well as the opposition of the company’s founders to tracking users in order to individually target ads, was both a break with existing approaches and a reflection of growing pressure on Silicon Valley companies to show profits in the wake of the Dotcom crash of earlier in that year. That the decision to begin targeting ads transformed the company’s outlook, leading to years of breakneck revenue growth both prior and subsequent to its 2004 IPO, is by now well known. Less well-known is the critical nature of these decisions in the history and evolution of the far larger story of surveillance capitalism. The contingent nature of this moment, however, including the context of the Dotcom crash and specific decisions taken in the face of the challenge to generate sustainable revenues, leaves little doubt that the story of both Google and surveillance capitalism might easily have evolved differently.
Equally useful is Zuboff’s discussion of how surveillance capitalism is itself a creature of a particular moment in a larger economic trajectory. Specifically, surveillance capitalism might never have taken its current form if not for larger environment shaped by the emergence of the neoliberal ideology that emanated from the Chicago School of economics starting in the 1950’s and gathering steam throughout the 1960’s, and that has by now plagued many of the world’s leading economies and international institutions for nearly a half century. This ideology of market worship, centered around the belief that markets are ultimately unknowable entities, and thus need to remain free of government restrictions and all but the barest of oversight, has been a crucial context of surveillance capitalism’s own development. This is particularly true in the way surveillance capitalists have benefited from a culture of laissez-faire towards so many regulatory questions, a key enabler of the way surveillance capitalists have been able to expand their spheres of activity, and particularly collection of data, into realms previously held outside of capitalist logics and relations. This too reinforces Zuboff’s goal of ensuring readers appreciate the constructed, evolving nature of surveillance capitalism. That she manages to do this while linking to broader arguments about capitalism’s larger history, such as Hannah Arend’s notion of primitive accumulation of capital as a new spheres of activity are brought into capitalist orbits, an argument Zuboff employs to describe the windfall accruing to surveillance capitalist as they incorporate new and increasingly broad data streams into their systems, allows an appreciation of surveillance capitalism as itself part of a broader history of capitalism. Placing these processes within broader historical contexts contributes to demystifying them, further reinforcing Zuboff’s professed aim of bolstering the idea that resistance and opposition to the practices of surveillance capitalism are possible, much as they have been to other moments and types in capitalism’s extended history.
Surveillance Capitalism, the Individual, and Society
A novel, and critically important aspect of Zuboff’s work is her exploration of the individual and societal impacts of our current regime of surveillance capitalism. Most discussions of tech platforms and data concern simple matters such as loss of individual privacy as data is captured and collected. Zuboff, however, goes far beyond simplistic, and comparatively speaking, almost trivial, arguments about the loss of privacy, instead shedding important light on the current realities of how the traces of the online activities of individuals become the foundations of inputs into behavioral futures markets. Here Zuboff compellingly covers a broad swath of new and disturbing ground. By almost any measure, these efforts form the most novel and substantial contribution of Zuboff’s work, and the central thrust of her argument concerning the troubling, unprecedented nature of surveillance capitalism and how it represents a novel, unprecedented intrusion into the lives of those touched by its structures.
The realities, she argues, are that the efforts of surveillance capitalists not merely to predict the future behaviour of individuals, but to actively influence those future behaviours, is an unprecedented and troubling one, particularly for their long-term impacts on individuals. Equally importantly, as surveillance capitalists look to invade every space, to fill every moment and every digital interaction with nudges and prompts encouraging particular behaviour, individuals find themselves even further deprived of spaces enabling deep reflection, where the lack of immediate sensory input allows reflective, longer-term thinking to occur. This sort of reflective thinking allows individuals to plan, consider values and priorities, and make long term goals and decisions. This mental space, Zuboff argues, has long been central to the construction of individual identity and values. Its loss thus has profound impacts upon the individual. Returning to her efforts to situate her story within a broader history of capitalism, Zuboff notes that just as industrial capitalism set in processes that may ultimately consume our physical environment, surveillance capitalism may ultimately end by consuming the mental aspects that make us distinctly human. While this may be overstating the potential impact of surveillance capitalism upon individuals, her argument that this sort of thinking is equally of the sort required to enable individuals to function effectively as thoughtful citizens in a democracy suggests the range of impacts across different levels of society. It is in considering the matter in this way that Zuboff is compelled to argue that the impacts of surveillance capitalism are so unprecedented, particularly given how it represents a genuine threat to society as a whole.
On the Unprecedented Nature of Surveillance Capitalism and Pathways for Resistance
Related to the way surveillance capitalism threatens to transform individuals and their mental facilities as it profoundly penetrates all aspects of society, a second critical aspect of Zuboff’s framing of the subject is the way she presents surveillance capitalism as an unprecedented, qualitatively new moment in capitalism’s own history. In doing so, not only does she describe how surveillance breaks established norms and reciprocities between capitalist economies and individuals living within it, she extends her argument until she finally laments its rise as, ”a betrayal of capitalism” as it has ‘historically’ been practiced.While perhaps directionally correct, her characterization of this as ‘capitalism’ rather than a ‘a specific capitalism’s history.’ ultimately undermines her argument.
Specifically, she laments how surveillance capitalism’s rupture with what she variously described as “earlier” and “historic” versions of capitalism has upset “established” norms. Gone, in this formulation, are what she calls long-established relationships of capitalism with the individuals living within it, where in exchange for their labor individuals are compensated financially in a way that allows them to satisfy material needs. In its place is today a system where surveillance capitalism is virtually indifferent to the role of individuals, beyond their utility as the source of raw materials for the generation of predictive models. Instead, while processing their data, generating behavioral profiles and predictive models, and even shaping future behavior to improve the so-called effectiveness of those models, surveillance capitalism returns little to individuals. Little, that is, if one disregards the endless stream of inputs designed to encourage particular actions by keeping individuals continually reacting to an incessant flow of new stimuli, where each new attention grabbing stimulus is both a refinement of prior stimuli as well as a further test of acquired knowledge and models that is designed to allow subsequent stimuli to be even more effective.
Insofar as surveillance capitalism represents a genuinely unprecedented intrusion into the lives of individuals, there is undoubtedly something to this argument. This argument resonates in part because surveillance capitalism is far from a system where a consumer can easily choose merely to opt out, or to patronize a competitor who operates a meaningfully different business model. Rather, it is an intrusive, enveloping, and consuming system. As such, the system strives to become an inescapable one, omnipresent and omniscient, remaking the world in the image of its desires, and removing all prospects of privacy or sanctuary space from individual lives.
While these descriptions accurately characterize elements of surveillance capitalism, as the scale of intrusion and knowledge is genuinely unprecedented, the extent to which this represents qualitatively new ground in terms of the impact of capitalism upon the lives of those living within it is perhaps debatable. This observation, in turn, raises the question of how Zuboff frames and presents capitalism itself, its “established norms” and “customary practices” that are presented as forming the baseline from which she describes how surveillance capitalism itself represents a deviation. Ultimately, one is left to wonder if she does not overstate the ultimate significance of surveillance capitalism’s impact, mistaking a quantitatively more intrusive system for a qualitatively different one? This distinction is important, for the question is more than one of mere degree. Rather, the impact of presenting surveillance capitalism as Zuboff does is to reduce the spaces for resistance against an opponent portrayed as so uniquely forbidding, almost unprecedented in the long history of capitalism. In this sense, exploring in more detail her own presentation of capitalism serves a number of purposes in developing strategies for understanding surveillance capitalism, resisting it, and ultimately moving beyond it.
From one perspective, it is undoubtedly true that early 21st Century surveillance capitalism is able to deploy previously unimagined technological capacities to impose itself into the lives of the world’s digitally-connected populations. Never before has a capitalist regime been able to so thoroughly enter the mental space of an individual operating within it. More importantly, as noted, the way this creates possibilities of shaping future behaviour equally appears rather unprecedented. But without dismissing the nature and degree of this knowledge, and in turn, the influence surveillance capitalists employ, finding historic examples that call into question arguments for the absolute novelty of this system is not difficult.
One manner of exploring the ‘unprecedented’ nature of surveillance capitalism as being meaningfully different from earlier capitalism, is in the degree of influence, arguably even outright control, surveillance capitalists have over individuals within this system. It is worth noting, in this regard that Zuboff explicitly states that surveillance capitalism is different from Marx’s 19th century industrial capitalism. Yet considering company towns, for example, frequent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, decidedly complicates attempts to draw such distinctions. Workers in such circumstances are frequently described as having virtually every aspect of their physical and economic lives overwhelmed by their employer, and well known are the realities that most workers ended their month in debt to the company after paying rent and buying groceries from the company store. While managers of company towns of course did not have the same degree of control over the private thoughts of individuals within their city, was such control necessary? Was the effective degree of control over workers any less in its absence? When strikes were difficult to imagine given the dire straits of workers, and company security patrolled the town and acted as police, were additional forms of control truly necessary? Could one realistically claim the mechanisms of power the company enjoyed did not enter the mental space of workers? Such an example complicates Zuboff’s presentation of surveillance capitalism as unprecedented in how it breaks “established” norms.
Two observations can be made from this consideration of how Zuboff frames history here. One, her sense of “market” capitalism as a relative period of stability between labor and capital is itself a historically contingent example. This post WWII period she takes as her own normative period was actually a unique one, itself the result of several factors (ongoing rebuilding in Europe, continued expansion in the United States, the postwar boom, and the general prevalence of a Fordist model of production), and hardly representative of the longer sweep of capitalism.
Second, that she makes these claims is odd, from both a historic perspective, and equally from that one of one trying to rally resistance to the surveillance capitalists. That Zuboff is aware of this longer arc of capitalism, for her citation of Karl Polyani’s classic The Great Transformation that documents the gradual expansion of ‘the economy’ to incorporate increasing realms that had previously existed outside of the realm of capitalist relations, as bearing a resemblance to the development of surveillance capitalism, suggests an appreciation of how surveillance capitalism might be more of a type with earlier periods of the expansion of the economy into new realms than she might care to admit. David Harvey, who she also cites as a theorist of the kinds of primitive accumulation described by Hanna Arendt, equally spent much of his career discussing how capitalism incessantly seeks to expand, whether geographically or into new and previously untapped markets, and knowledge of his arguments makes it difficult to portray surveillance capitalism as an unprecedented development. As noted, this portrayal of surveillance capitalism as new, and extraordinarily powerful is perhaps most harmful in the way it implicitly downplays histories of successful resistance to capitalism, with the effect of discouraging potential opposition and resistance by building up this new threat as uniquely powerful, an effect that is clearly at odds with many of her other attempts to rally the opposition.
On Resisting the Surveillance Capitalists and the Place of Decentralized Systems
If Zuboff’s framing of history and political economy is questionable, the most recognizable impact of the images she presents of a new, almost omnipotent force is in unwittingly undermining discussions of potential alternatives to surveillance capitalism. (This is particularly unfortunate as this is at odds with, and effectively weakens, many of her other sincere calls for resistance to surveillance capitalism developed elsewhere throughout the book, for instance from her careful presentation of surveillance capitalism as a constructed, historically contingent process.) Still more unfortunate, particularly for readers of Surveillance Capitalism possessing a familiarity with the blockchain space, is how numerous moments present themselves throughout the text where the potential of decentralized systems to address some of the challenges of surveillance capitalism are easy to identify, yet these consistently pass unremarked.
Broadly speaking, many of these opportunities relate to the different ways decentralized technology infrastructure could be employed to operate under more voluntary and less transactional, extractive models, thereby presenting to users and consumers alternative structures to those developed by the leading practitioners of surveillance capitalism. That such models would starving surveillance capitalists of elements of their raw materials, in effect undermining the efficacy of their predictive models and their ability to inflict them upon users, is merely a starting point. More broadly, decentralized tech infrastructures could allow users to find spaces outside of the surveillance, advertisement driven imperatives of the surveillance capitalist world. In this context, Zuboff’s near complete lack of discussion of some of these potential opportunities, or of blockchain and decentralized systems more broadly, appear primarily as a series of lost opportunities.
In her defense, the period during which Surveillance Capitalism was being prepared was one where much of blockchain technology remained in relatively nascent stages, with limited public awareness of its potential and the range of developing projects. As such it would be unfair to excessively criticize her lack of awareness or familiarity with the technology. Yet the fact remains that this absence of consideration of decentralized systems throughout Surveillance Capitalism is difficult to see as other than a particularly frustrating absence given the otherwise urgent appeal of her calls for resistance.
For instance, when she does mention blockchain in Surveillance Capitalism, it is merely to dismiss its potential. If anything she damns it by association with MIT’s Alex Pentland, a blockchain supporter and B.F Skinner-inspired technologist who happens to be a key advocate for the potential of surveillance capitalism to hasten the world towards an intelligent state of instrumentarium social programing, one where individual free will is effectively removed. Apparently largely on the basis of Pentland’s support for decentralized systems, Zuboff dismisses the public, immutable nature of the Bitcoin blockchain, arguing instead how widespread adoption of decentralized systems would merely reinforce problems of data accessibility by surveillance capitalists. Yet, as is now relatively widely understood, there exists any number of permissioned, restricted, and selectively shareable ways to organize blockchains that do not require all data to be made openly accessible to any interested observers. In this regard, Zuboff’s simplistic characterization seems a lost opportunity for discussion of the ways blockchain-based, decentralized solutions could present viable modes of resistance to many of the most problematic aspects of surveillance capitalism. That decentralized solutions were not considered more carefully is particularly unfortunate given that what Zuboff proposes as means of opposition are themselves rather underwhelming.
Her own examples of resistance, for instance, appeal to the need for citizens to lobby to have laws altered or created in order to limit the ability of surveillance capitalists to continue to acquire, process, and ultimately resell as personalized predictions, the data of individual users. Yet how realistic is this, particularly in the context of having already shown how surveillance capitalists ignore and trample existing laws and societal norms, accumulate massive wealth and power, and lobby extensively to shape legal systems in their favor? Appeal to legislators thus appears unlikely to present a meaningful remedy to this problem, particularly in the context of the most meaningful data privacy legislation having been passed to date, the European Union’s GPDR regulations, already appearing to be rather impotent against the challenge of the tech companies. Likewise, her calls for individuals to assert a right to sanctuary, a right to free will, and ultimately their right to the future may be heartfelt, utterly necessary, and hugely valuable in inspiring individuals to critically reflect upon their own personal values and choices, but how these might realistically slow the juggernauts that are the world’s leading surveillance capitalists is less than clear. More realistic, perhaps, are those who simply elect to opt out of surveillance capitalism’s ecosystems of social media and online consumerism, but whether this is debatable at scale is a legitimate question, particularly as many find pleasure in a range of online and social media type activities.
In this context, it certainly seems worthy of consideration of the ways legitimate approaches to resisting the efforts of surveillance capitalists include presenting alternative constructions of some of the widely used platforms and services offered by the surveillance capitalists. The potential for decentralized systems to present meaningful alternatives to the imperatives of surveillance capitalism not only becomes clear, but becomes the basis for a tour of some of the decentralized alternatives being developed. Doing so makes clear how the emergence of a universe of such decentralized projects is already beginning to develop enough momentum that it is worth considering as a serious alternative to the universe of surveillance capitalists and their projects.
A quick tour of this universe suggests the range of decentralized projects under development, and the alternatives they represent. For instance, the emerging social network start-up FABRK, is developing a ‘people protocol’ for individuals to connect across the internet while maintaining control of their own data, and promises a vastly different experience from the platforms of surveillance capitalism’s practitioners such as Facebook. Likewise, both Peepeth and Mastodon represent decentralized alternatives to Twitter that offer alternative constructions and ad-free models. Itself built upon ActivityPub, an open-source protocol for social media that allows users to establish their own instances of the protocol, complete with unique rules for communication, Mastodon is now one of several such instances. Of an even broader scope, Urbit represents a new operating system designed to facilitate the development of self-sovereign web applications guided by users and their values. Decentralized alternatives to LinkedIn are also possible to imagine ,such as the recently announced model of an open-sourced version of a LinkedIn style skills-focused social networking platform developed by Dfinity. Likely the most advanced of the above group, the privacy focused Brave web browser, which blocks trackers and allows users to opt in to selectively see ads selected based merely on browsing history, for which they can be compensated with tokens they can in turn keep or use to reward preferred content sites or content creators, represents an arguably even fuller vision for bypassing the platforms of surveillance capitalists, given its own economic logic that seeks to generate revenue for sites in a world where advertising has a modified role.
Nor is social media the extent of the ways in which decentralized systems promise to impact the world’s dominant tech structures. An example of what such decentralized systems can offer existing markets can be seen in considering Winding Tree, a start-up travel booking platform. As many are aware, the travel booking industry has long been controlled by two major players. The existing system is frequently described as an unnecessarily complex one, with arcane rules requiring vendors to commit to a range of onerous fees and pricing structure agreements in order to access the dominant platforms. The impact upon suppliers is reduced income, and upon consumers is higher fees and limited choice. Winding Tree, however, as a decentralized, blockchain-based network is developing a competing travel booking platform that is open to suppliers without equivalent restrictions, and with lesser fees. The result should be a fairer system for all parties, where consumers realize a wider range of choices and lower prices, while suppliers establish their own pricing strategies and retain more of their revenue. That Winding Tree offers this while equally promising individuals an ecosystem free of the extractive data capture policies of existing platforms further reinforces the potential to undermine the core elements of the surveillance capitalism world, while also offering more attractive economics to all parties only reinforces the advantages of such systems.
While all of the above projects are early-stage and far from achieving critical mass, they represent meaningful examples of potential pathways for escaping the universe of surveillance capitalism’s extractive and manipulative imperatives. More importantly, they speak to the potential for alternative constructions, built around fundamentally more egalitarian models of society and place of individuals within it. While Zuboff may have overlooked the potential of such constructions in her own efforts to bring Surveillance Capitalism to print, without her masterful contribution to understanding capitalism’s latest moment and the threat it represents, both individually and collectively, it would be impossible to appreciate the importance of projects such as these and to understand the range of ways they represent important innovations.