Guide The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World

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Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour. While the general modus operandi of Google , Facebook et al has been known and understood at least by some people for a while, what has been missing — and what Zuboff provides — is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context.

Viewed from this perspective, the behaviour of the digital giants looks rather different from the roseate hallucinations of Wired magazine. What one sees instead is a colonising ruthlessness of which John D Rockefeller would have been proud. Then the use of patented methods to extract or infer data even when users had explicitly denied permission, followed by the use of technologies that were opaque by design and fostered user ignorance.

And, of course, there is also the fact that the entire project was conducted in what was effectively lawless — or at any rate law-free — territory. Thus Google decided that it would digitise and store every book ever printed, regardless of copyright issues. The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers invisible, unknown and unaccountable and the watched.

This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable. That means that self-regulation is a nonstarter.

  • Information Paradox : Drowning in Information, Starving for Knowledge - IEEE Technology and Society.
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The Age of Surveillance Capital is a striking and illuminating book. And if we fail to tame the new capitalist mutant rampaging through our societies then we will only have ourselves to blame, for we can no longer plead ignorance. John Naughton: At the moment, the world is obsessed with Facebook. But as you tell it, Google was the prime mover.

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Shoshana Zuboff: Surveillance capitalism is a human creation. It lives in history, not in technological inevitability. It was pioneered and elaborated through trial and error at Google in much the same way that the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism. Surveillance capitalism was invented around as the solution to financial emergency in the teeth of the dotcom bust when the fledgling company faced the loss of investor confidence.

Operationally this meant that Google would both repurpose its growing cache of behavioural data, now put to work as a behavioural data surplus, and develop methods to aggressively seek new sources of this surplus. The company developed new methods of secret surplus capture that could uncover data that users intentionally opted to keep private, as well as to infer extensive personal information that users did not or would not provide.

And this surplus would then be analysed for hidden meanings that could predict click-through behaviour.

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The surplus data became the basis for new predictions markets called targeted advertising. Here was the origin of surveillance capitalism in an unprecedented and lucrative brew: behavioural surplus, data science, material infrastructure, computational power, algorithmic systems, and automated platforms. As click-through rates skyrocketed, advertising quickly became as important as search. Eventually it became the cornerstone of a new kind of commerce that depended upon online surveillance at scale. The success of these new mechanisms only became visible when Google went public in JN: So surveillance capitalism started with advertising, but then became more general?

SZ: Surveillance capitalism is no more limited to advertising than mass production was limited to the fabrication of the Ford Model T. It quickly became the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by nearly every startup and app. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players.

I am fascinated by the structure of colonial conquest, especially the first Spaniards who stumbled into the Caribbean islands. Back then Columbus simply declared the islands as the territory of the Spanish monarchy and the pope.

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The sailors could not have imagined that they were writing the first draft of a pattern that would echo across space and time to a digital 21st century. The first surveillance capitalists also conquered by declaration. They simply declared our private experience to be theirs for the taking, for translation into data for their private ownership and their proprietary knowledge. They relied on misdirection and rhetorical camouflage, with secret declarations that we could neither understand nor contest.

Google began by unilaterally declaring that the world wide web was its to take for its search engine. Surveillance capitalism originated in a second declaration that claimed our private experience for its revenues that flow from telling and selling our fortunes to other businesses. In both cases, it took without asking.

Page [Larry, Google co-founder] foresaw that surplus operations would move beyond the online milieu to the real world, where data on human experience would be free for the taking. As it turns out his vision perfectly reflected the history of capitalism, marked by taking things that live outside the market sphere and declaring their new life as market commodities. We were caught off guard by surveillance capitalism because there was no way that we could have imagined its action, any more than the early peoples of the Caribbean could have foreseen the rivers of blood that would flow from their hospitality toward the sailors who appeared out of thin air waving the banner of the Spanish monarchs.

When history has no educational value, it can be a tragedy for all involved [13]. Warfare is not the only victim of information loss. Business suffers similar consequences. The industrial revolution of the 19th century was a technological marvel, and was based on the scientific developments of the previous hundred years.

It elevated Europeans into global power and hegemony. Yet the industrial revolution also wreaked havoc on the social organization of European societies, and later on the whole world. Mental illness became an epidemic in the U. The most likely explanation is the fact that industrialization destroyed craft based communities and extended families, since family members had to acquire specialized skills, and travel long distances to large centralized factories where they were needed.

Suddenly, work was separated from family and community, and people were expected to have fractured and disconnected personalities relating to work and family separately. It is not surprising then that fractured personality disorders such as schizophrenia, and social isolation disorders such as loneliness and depression skyrocketed. The new technologies led to a loss of age-old valuable information about community building and mental health support through integration of work and family structures [12].

The Relationship Between Technology and Religion

Information is not neutral. It does not merely inform, it guides our decisions and actions. In extreme cases, complete control of information means complete control of behavior. Cults and militaries often isolate their members from the general public and control their information. In a very short time, sufficient influence can be exerted to get members to sacrifice themselves for the common cause. Stockholm Syndrome is another example where a kidnap victim, isolated from the outside world, quickly identifies with her abductors, loves and respects them, and may even defy and resist her would-be rescuers to stay with them.

An American teenager named Elizabeth Smart was abducted in from her bedroom at knife point by a couple. After a period of isolation, she identified with her captors completely, changed her religion and appearance, and made no attempt to escape although she was left alone long periods of time [21].

The world is a messy place. Competition for survival often leads to information wars where misleading and deceiving others to serve your purpose is a common technique. Most of our existing information is distorted, or even downright wrong, to serve such competitive purposes of others. A great deal of information is produced to influence others rather than to inform, and such flooding of misinformation actually reduces our knowledge and insight, and ironically can leave everybody worse off.

Consider spam email. So much of it is produced because it pays to send spam email, since the receivers pay the cost of sorting through large numbers of irrelevant and even fraudulent emails. Economists call this an externality when others pay part of the cost of your economic benefit. But when everybody sends spam to everybody else, everybody is worse off when email becomes unusable, with a great deal of low-quality information overwhelming the receivers and blocking high-quality information.

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Information may merely inform and give options, but economics often creates necessities and forces action. Information easily spreads and becomes available to your competitors, so if it produces any short term advantage, it forces acting on that information. Consider the nuclear race during and after World War II. The possibility of nuclear bombs and the rudimentary knowledge to build them developed during the war by both parties. Neither party could possibly ignore that information, and refuse to develop the bomb, knowing that others may do so.

In the process, the information eventually left everybody worse off, some by being targeted or threatened by them, others with nuclear weapons aimed at each other.

The Power of Knowledge

Consider agriculture, which may have changed what it means to be human. Stone-age people may have lived healthier lives than the agricultural people that came after them [22]. Why then would they make the switch? The race to exploit others, and not to be exploited, cannot easily be opted out of.

Technology in Our Life Today and How It Has Changed | Updated for |

Agriculture concentrated the food supply and fixed it geographically, so the people became dependent on a specific plot of land, once they invested their time and labor. Such concentration and immobility encouraged the exploitation of those dependent on that plot of land, by those with ownership rights to that plot of land. Warfare followed invariably to establish ownership rights. In fact, when anthropologist Jane Goodall took some peaceful chimpanzees from their natural hunting-gathering habitat, and started feeding them from a central location, incessant violence broke out among them almost immediately to gain access to the limited but centralized food source [22].

Overall human health and longevity may have taken a severe hit from agriculture. In addition to the reduced nutritional value of the agricultural diet, the diseases deadliest to our species began their rampage with agriculture.