Surveillance capitalism has transformed regimes of techno-capitalist control. Domination is no longer exercised through Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ but Zuckerberg’s ‘Like’, flowing primarily not from physical and external power exerted on the body but through ubiquitous digital surveillance, the data it yields and the behavioural changes this enables. This marriage of neoliberal rationality and geolocational technologies that track and trace everyday life has led to an explosion in capitalist power that threatens our democracy, imperils foundational liberal principles and practices, and is driving spiralling inequality. That is the deeper story of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations. The lesson: in a society of ubiquitous surveillance, we urgently need a politics capable of developing new forms of democratic power, of our data, of our economy, of ourselves.
Lenin once predicted a time where ‘all of society will become a factory.’ That future has arrived, as our world has been resculpted for the smooth, voracious and unending accumulation and commodification of data. Our relationships and networks, our physical infrastructures, our devices, all are being repurposed for data extraction and profit. The agents driving this are the security state and, crucially, and complicitly, the dominant platform companies. While the major platform monopolies are diverse in form, they are united in purpose: the extraction and analysis of data in ever widening domains of life to generate immense economic reward. Our common resource – collectively produced data – drives this process of capital formation, a contemporary form of accumulation by dispossession. Their goal then is universal: the enclosure and monetisation of all of society through the boundless accumulation and analysis of behavioural data.
These firms – including Facebook, Google, and Amazon – have developed a new logic of accumulation, what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’ and what Nick Srnicek terms ‘platform capitalism’. They occupy the commanding heights of the contemporary economy. Powered by an alliance of the pervasive reach of digital technologies, finance capital, and a form of neoliberal rationality matched to Californian libertarianism, this new economic mode is based on unilateral surveillance to enable the major platforms to profit from the analysis of mass behavioural data. They do this through providing goods and services on their digital infrastructure – the platform – which acts as the site for the mass collection of information. All their efforts bend to the goal of increasing, in Zuboff’s words, ‘the harvest of behavioral surplus from people, bodies, things, processes, and places in both the virtual and the real world,’ and the transformation of that behavioural data into profits and power. The new means of production is consequently the application of immensely powerful AI and machine learning to generate profitable insights from data generated through the use of their platforms. In the short term, this is through selling information to advertisers generated from behavioural data; in the longer term, it is the training of AI and robotic systems that threaten our analytical and physical eclipse and labour’s redundancy.
Capitalism is consequently mutating. As Zuboff argues, whereas profits once flowed from goods and services, then financial speculation, today it is from surveillance and the monetisation of mass behavioural data. Prediction is consequently the product, the selling of our attention and the promise from the platforms that their algorithmic power married to digital surveillance can alter our behaviour.
The increasing fulfilment of that promise means the disciplinary, punishing institutions of the state and capital that were central to the regulation and operation of industrial and post-industrial capitalism are giving way to more pervasive and in some sense more totalising forms of power and control. The technologies of digtialisation – tracking technologies, cloud systems, immense computer power, and the smartphone, the sovereign device of the ‘Big Data’ society – have enabled a regime of technological domination that uncovers and feeds off our own psychological disclosures, as the theorist Byung-Chul Han suggests. Our movements, our emotions, our networks are surveilled, often without explicit consent. But they are also self-disclosed, our Facebook status updates, Instagram locations, and Google searches generating a more expansive modern digital panopticon, a new architecture of comprehensive surveillance and potential control. Foucault’s biopolitics – the processes and strategies by which human life is managed by a disciplinary state under regimes of authority over knowledge, power and subjectivity – has consequently been eclipsed by control through ‘datafication’ and the self-surveilled subject.
At the same time, ubiquitous connectivity, data capture, and algorithmic analysis erode the separate domains of society, so vital to liberalism, and collapse distinct forms of evaluations and measurement into one ruled by ‘Like’. In this sense, the boundless drive of surveillance capitalism and its dominant platforms to enclose and ‘know’ its subjects and their behaviours is the apotheosis of neoliberal rationality, which seeks the economisation of society and the neutering of the uncertain, hopeful natality of political life. Wendy Brown’s argument that neoliberalism is the encoding of all fields of activity within an economic register, that transforms every action into a market action, finds its most complete form (so far) in the fact that almost digital activities are transformed into a act of profit, an economic stream, for the platform giants. All acts become market acts, all actions ultimately written in an economic register, all of society turned into a site for digital labour and an engine of accumulation. Homo digitalus under surveillance capitalism then is inescapably homo economicus.
Foundational liberal values and norms are consequently threatened by the marriage of the boundless ambition of the platform giants combined with their ability to transform data into products for prediction and manipulation. If the wealth and purpose of these firms is generated directly by their ability to alter and intervene in human behaviour at scale, then privacy, autonomy, and democratic sovereignty are imperilled. Attention, and the social, political and economic relationships it sustains, is corroded. We cannot help but use the digital infrastructure they command in modern society. But if doing so provides the means by which certain privileged actors can intervene, manipulate, and reshape society then self-determination, individually and collectively, is threatened. Of course, we still live in a society of privacy, self-determination and autonomy, it is just they are unequally divided. The great usurpers of data, who accumulate without end, are themselves opaque, the exemplification of the ‘black box society’. This profound inequality undermines democratic integrity.
The dual quality of surveillance capitalism and its platform actors – that it at once expands our ability to connect and explore but also more deeply contracts freedom – is mirrored in neoliberalism at large. On the one hand, we are offered a world of consumer choice and seemingly boundless interactions. On the other, however, we are ensnared by debt that forecloses the future, autonomy and dignity is undercut by technologies that reshape work and culture, and inequality veers towards the oligarchic. And in communities, workplaces and households across the country, people lack meaningful control over their lives as neoliberalism has hollowed out institutions of collective control and excavated sites of democratic power in the economy.
How then can we resist the unfreedom of neoliberalism amid the conditions of data accumulation and monopolistic platforms? If neoliberalism is, as Will Davies argues, ‘the disenchantment of politics by economics’, our response must be to rebuild democratic power and our capacity to shape and order our lives. This requires a politics that emphasises the need for granularity and friction, not endless smooth accumulation, that stresses the importance of publicness and public things, and is sceptical about the emancipatory claims of technology while working towards a world where such rhetoric can find actualisation in meaningful and democratic forms. While lessons from past battles with the monopolies of industrial capitalism suggest potential tools of regulation, anti-trust action, or prohibition to challenge surveillance capitalism, it is more likely we will need to develop a new 21st century framework for building a democratic digital infrastructure.
Concretely, it demands new models of ownership and governance – of our data and of capital – that can democratise the economy at scale alongside the more innovative use of existing public institutions such as the BBC and its digital reach. The reimagining of the mechanisms by which surveillance produces profit must be central to this. This should include reframing how behaviour data is captured, stored and used, challenging the concentrated nature of the contemporary means of production in the dominant platforms, and reshaping who benefits from data’s potential monetisation, reinserting our collective claim to the value we create.
There is much to do then, and little time. Surveillance capitalism is universal in intent, aiming for all encompassing oversight and behavioural influence. The ambition of the platforms giants is insatiable and their influence, as the revelations show, often pernicious. We should beware Californians bearing gifts. All is not lost though. As the late Robin Murray rightly argued, the same technologies underpinning current forms of neoliberal control can enable new modes of co-operation and democratic power if we have the ambition, strategy, and politics to transform their use. That then is the task: to replace the narrow and unequal choices of the society of the ‘Like’ with a deeper, more enriching and messier democratic life, where technologies deepen and extend human freedom.
Mathew Lawrence is a senior research fellow at IPPR. He tweets @dantonshead