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The Creepy Way Facebook And Amazon Profit Off Our Private Data

Shoshana Zuboff, the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” discusses how tech companies harvest our thoughts, preferences and behaviors.

Our lives and habits are being tracked. Every time we tap in a Google search, every time we click “Like” on Facebook and every time we make an Amazon purchase, we are giving away information about ourselves: our thoughts, our preferences, our behaviors.

We are providing data that can be packaged up and sold to companies, which then use that data to try to modify our behavior and steer us toward buying their products and services.

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff calls it the commodification of human data. In the information era we live in, she explains in her new book, “The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism,” we are the marketable product. It’s a terrifying idea.

In an interview with HuffPost, Zuboff talks about how this new world is not just a threat to our privacy, but — as it starts to shape our actions — to our democracy itself:

So, what is surveillance capitalism?

It’s important to know that in many ways, surveillance capitalism differs dramatically from other forms of capitalism over the last couple of centuries. Capitalism is claiming things that live outside the marketplace, bringing them into the market and turning them into what people call “commodities,” things that can be sold and purchased.

Industrial capitalism, which dominated the late 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, famously claimed nature. The trees and the forests and the rivers — these are entities that have a life of their own. Industrial capitalism brought nature into the market dynamic, and nature was reborn. It was called “land,” and it was called “real estate.” That allowed it to be sold and purchased and become the source of profit.

Surveillance capitalism proceeds according to this pattern, but with a dark and unexpected twist. So unexpected, in fact, that it’s taken us quite a while to catch on to what they’ve actually done. Surveillance capitalism claims private human experience for the market dynamic.

Ultimately, what surveillance capitalists are trying to do is sell predictions. It's not only to know our behavior, but it's to predict our behavior. That's how they make their money.

It says that private human experience is now a source of free, raw material — just like harvesting wheat or collecting ore from a mountain side. [We are] a source of free, raw material that can be processed into data, and those data can be computed and sold and purchased and owned.

That sequence has created the largest, wealthiest and most powerful companies — like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon — that the world has ever known. All of that begins with the unilateral declaration that private human experience is ours for the taking.

Ultimately, what surveillance capitalists are trying to do is sell predictions. It’s not only to know our behavior, but it’s to predict our behavior. That’s how they make their money.

Shoshana Zuboff speaks during the Milken Institute's 22nd annual Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, on April 30.
Shoshana Zuboff speaks during the Milken Institute's 22nd annual Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, on April 30.

Those predictions are not to improve our lives, but rather they’re sold to business customers who have a business interest in knowing what we will do next — because that raises the certainty that they have about how to successfully sell us things or how to reward and punish us in real time in order to get us to behave in a way that serves their bottom line.

You’ve argued before that surveillance capitalism isn’t just about monitoring us, but about changing how we act. How does that happen?

[Companies have] got so much information about us that they’re now learning in experimental ways how to use that information to actually control our behavior and modify our behavior in the direction that suits their bottom line.

Pokémon Go is a game that was incubated in Google for many years. It was staffed by Google executives, run by Google executives, invented by Google people, spun out of Google, with Google remaining a major investor.

Pokémon Go, it turns out, was a game within a game. People thought they were playing this augmented reality game, when in fact the game itself was designed to herd people through the city to service establishments, restaurants and other kinds of places that paid the game for footfall. 

In other words, just as online advertisers pay the companies for click-through, real-world establishments were paying Pokémon Go creators Niantic Labs for guaranteed footfall, actual bodies, real feet in their restaurants, in their bars, in their coffee shops and so forth, including McDonald’s and Starbucks.

This was a large-scale experiment, it turned out, in how to use gamification, rewards and punishments to herd people, modify their behavior, get them to go where you want them to go, where you’re going to make money on their behavior.

People play Pokémon Go during a gathering to celebrate "Pokémon Day" in Mexico City, Mexico, in August 2016.
People play Pokémon Go during a gathering to celebrate "Pokémon Day" in Mexico City, Mexico, in August 2016.

What we see is that in order to sell certainty about how people will behave, we are compelled to turn the vast digital architecture on and offline into a global means of shaping how people behave. This is a new kind of power. It means to control our behavior in a direction that fits with their commercial purpose.

There would be quite a lot of people who would look at 20th century capitalism and say, “Yes, maybe they commodified nature.” But for the average person, it’s meant they were richer at the end of the 20th century than they were at the beginning. If surveillance capitalism will keep that trend going, is that not a good thing?

[The commodification of nature] created economic growth for the first time in human history, and economic growth has contributed everything to our civilizations. It has allowed people to be educated, it has allowed the rise of science, it has allowed the rise of health and the eradication of disease. It’s created middle classes.

But we didn’t understand the long-term implications of [industrial capitalism’s] operations for the planet, for our climate, for our environment. Now, we are facing a planetary crisis.

We’ve caught on to it very late because we didn’t have the science to understand — until very recently. Then, the science was confounded by an ugly politics that has impeded our ability as nations to cope with this challenge.

The young activist Greta Thunberg has become known for saying: “The house is on fire.” The planet is, indeed, our house. What I’m saying is that our home is on fire. Society is our home.

We can no longer look forward to a digital future that we can call “home” in a way that we would recognize as something that is consistent with our values of democracy, of individual sovereignty and of human agency.

I believe that we can continue to benefit from economic growth, but with democracy with law and with regulatory regimes. I have not given up. With all of its violence and disappointment, I still believe that capitalism, if correctly tethered to democracy, can be a positive thing for our societies.

Is it naive or is it being optimistic to say that democracy is capable of curtailing surveillance capitalism? 

This is a collective action problem. Our democracies have been on the ropes before. If we look at the Gilded Age, the late 19th century — those companies, the JPMorgans and the Standard Oils and so on, the Rockefellers, the people we now call “robber barons” — they weren’t called “robber barons” back then. They were just barons. It’s in the fullness of time that we turned around and we said, “You know what? They were robbing us.”

I know that we can do it because we’ve done it before. The second thing is that  surveillance capitalism is 20 years old. I consider that something positive. It’s only 20 years old. It’s not like it’s got a century of standing. It’s young. Now we’re learning about it, getting a grip on it and beginning to come together around a new language and a new understanding.

We’re just in time to begin this work. We may not have the two or three decades that we had earlier in the 20th-century, but certainly we have the next 10 years to come together and really begin to understand this.

The neoliberal juggernaut that’s dominated the last four to five decades has run its course. It’s completed its damage. And we’re now going to summon democracy to pick up the pieces and put us back together again.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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