A Marxist Take on Surveillance Capitalism
Do devices listen to the conversations of their users? Is there a nefarious individual on the other side of that screen, eavesdropping on our most intimate moments? The mere suggestion of such a prospect undoubtedly unnerves us, sapiens having been socialised with, and by technology. The question is ultimately near-benign – regardless of whether we have been listened in on, our intimate moments have already been anticipated with terrifying accuracy, for, in a near-dystopian fashion, individuals already surrender vast swathes of data, data that predicts what one does now, soon, and later. Such is argument Zuboff advances in her seminal text The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019).
Zuboff in her book provides an extensive account of the relentless extraction of human experience by corporations for profit. Profit for our corporate overlords (Facebook, Google and the like) exists in the behavioural futures markets, wherein prediction products, fashioned out of the data mined surreptitiously from individuals, anticipates and allows for behavioural modification for the sake of profit. Consider the cookies pioneered by Google, which tracks users’ browsing, enabling the creation of targeted advertisements tailored to the individual.
The optimist, for whom these scenarios are entirely online, is to be sorely disappointed. The competitive market dynamics of the future pushes corporations to extract even more out of humanity, to make even greater and more accurate predictions, and to encroach upon our lives outside the digital sphere. Pokémon Go, developed by the Google owned Niantic, provided the answer to modifying human behaviour in real life on a massive scale. Enabled by prior work Accompanying the ever-present microtransactions was the concept of a sponsored location, that is, establishments like restaurants and bars which Google would charge in exchange for Gyms or Pokéstops. These locations were important in-game markers, nudging players towards these locations for the sake of profit.
Image Retrieved from: https://pokemongolive.com
A Marxist Reading of the Preceding
As Giddens (1971) explicates, what lies at the root of all societies is, for Marx, productive activity; the source of stability and modification of society exists in the individual’s productive capacities, and, it is for this reason that every society is founded upon a relations of production. Class in the Marxist sense, then, denotes positions within these relations. Capitalist societies are built upon two diametrically opposed classes – the dominant class who own the means of production, the bourgeoise, and the subordinate class who do not, the proletariat.
It should be clear that in the hellscape of surveillance capitalism corporations like Google and Facebook are representative of the bourgeoise (Fuchs, 2012), owning the means of production for prediction products and exploiting the proletariat through its extraction of data. But, as Fuchs points out, social media users do not fit neatly into traditional conceptions of the subordinate class, for whom wages come from selling labour (Giddens, 1971). Instead, users are ‘Prosumers’, who consume content on social media platforms, while at the same time generating the raw material to be used in the creation of prediction products.
There is another difference, and this is crucial in examining this new breed of capitalism. That is, that the means of production remain entirely foreign to those without the means to comprehend it. Zuboff terms this the ‘Problem of Two Texts’. To those in possession of the capital that is social media platforms, user data, and machine learning, there are two texts being read. The first, the surface text, remains visible to all – it comprises the status updates, location check-ins, and videos that individuals post on social networking sites. The second, more sinister ‘Shadow text’, is made up of all the data extracted from users, to be churned by machines, the workings of which remain far beyond the grasp of the everyman. In surveillance capitalism, then, those subordinate are rendered helpless in the face of increasing complexity in technology, unable to resist the capitalists who collect, anticipate, and control their behaviour.
Food for thought:
Considering the scale and pervasiveness of surveillance capitalism, how might we being to combat it? Are we forced to become luddites, escaping the system entirely? Or are there ways to check this new form of power?
The internet of things is also rapidly becoming more advanced, with new devices collecting more and more of your behavioural data. What are some of these new technologies you can think of, and would you limit your use of them for this reason?
Written by Yap Yi Yang, Year 1, Sociology Major
Fuchs, C. (2012). The Political Economy of privacy on Facebook. Television & New Media, 13(2), 139–159. https://doi.org/10.1177/1527476411415699
Giddens, A. (1971). Capitalism and modern social theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber. University Press.
Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books.