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The Pros and Cons of Surveillance and Surveillance Capitalism

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The Pros and Cons of Surveillance and Surveillance Capitalism

In time, 2019 will come to be seen as an epochal year – perhaps as significant as 1066, 1776, 1848, 1939. As in those moments...

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In time, 2019 will come to be seen as an epochal year – perhaps as significant as 1066, 1776, 1848, 1939. As in those moments of era defining history, we are at a point where the trajectory of the future is being set. Here at the Center for the Future of Work we have written extensively about the positive power of technology to change our world for the good. But it is the dark side of technology that has come fully into relief in the last few months.

Two books published this year have crystalized quite what is at stake as ones and zeros come to dominate every aspect of our lives. Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff and Permanent Record by Edward Snowden are texts that, in my opinion, will take their place alongside the great books of the human experience for as long as that may last. Neither will find their way there for the quality of their prose; Zuboff’s book is a long, tough slog frankly. Snowden’s is a better read and if no ghosts were involved, well, I tip my chapeau, but it is still no King Lear or Catch-22.

The reason they are so important is because they shine an unsparing spotlight on how technology has edged us towards the future that George Orwell warned us about in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Since it was published Orwell’s masterpiece has been the totemic argument against the overreach of government and the perils of institutional power (public or private) overwhelming the individual. For someone of my generation, Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of the set books that taught us to be distrustful of power whether it be in the east, or the west, or on the streets, or our workplaces, or in our own homes. Its themes permeated the language – “Doublethink”, the “thought police”, “Big Brother is watching you”, the culture – Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Elvis Costello’s Night Rally, TV shows Room 101 and Big Brother, the technology – the classic 1984 Apple advert, and the politics – to Reagan and Thatcher the U.S.S.R. was Big Brother.

Orwell’s warning was profound and stark, yet here we are, 71 year later, and as Zuboff and Snowden make painfully clear, we have failed to heed it. The governments of many, if not most, G20 countries record our every digital move. Large corporations access (without our knowledge) vast troves of information about our digital lives too. The devices around us listen to us talk. Our thoughts and actions are predicted and gamed and monetized in ways that would amaze, but not surprise Orwell. The public square is full of disinformation; the public discourse is full of hate (lasting far longer than two minutes); we are at permanent war (though we know not really who with); trust in public officials, and in each other, has never been lower; and the “unmanaged” space in which we have to simply be, gets smaller and smaller as each piece of technology that we use is drawn tighter and tighter into a “mesh” around our very existence.

Zuboff and Snowden lay out the details of what has happened in the last couple of decades in their respective fields; as a Harvard Business School professor, Zuboff has observed and taught the rules of modern business success. As an operative within various “three-letter-agencies”, Snowden built the surveillance infrastructure that he then exposed. Though neither book references the other, in my mind they are in essence examining two sides of the same coin. Surveillance Capitalism outlines how commercial corporations use data harvested from individuals to sell advertising, goods, and services. Permanent Record outlines how the U.S. government (and its allies) uses data harvested from individuals to protect national security. Though neither author makes this point, it should be noted that the core technology that underlies these efforts, in both the public and private sector, comes from the same gene pool – and all roads lead to one of President Trump’s primary technology advisors.

I read both books over the summer and finished them feeling deeply worried and disturbed. But as we near the end of the year the lack of impact they have had is beginning to worry and disturb me even more. Admittedly, Surveillance Capitalism is on the shortlist for the Financial Times Book of the Year award, and Edward Snowden blew up the Internet when he was on the Joe Rogan Experience recently, but neither book is on the lips of the folks I talk to in a professional or personal capacity. At a big event in Washington D.C. the other day I referenced Zuboff’s work and hardly anyone there (bigwigs at the intersection of tech, business, and policy) even knew her name, let alone had read her book. Snowden is clearly a polarizing figure and in this age of de-platforming and ghosting (not a reference to writing support this time) is perhaps too risky a figure to too vocally support.

One person who I have spent a lot of time talking about the books to though has been a close personal friend of mine, who is the Chief Financial Officer of a major British PLC. It was his push back against my worry and concern that prompted me to try and analyze why I’m so worried and disturbed. To my friend, Netflix and Amazon and Facebook and cookies that make websites faster and more convenient are great – “what’s the problem?”. In his eyes, anything that keeps people safe and stops bad guys is a good thing too.

My friends view really stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps his perspective was actually the reason that Surveillance Capitalism and Permanent Record haven’t got the traction that I was expecting they would. Perhaps my worries and concerns are the minority view and a somewhat uninterested acceptance of surveillance and surveillance capitalism is the view of the majority. Perhaps people didn’t imbibe Orwell’s writing as deeply as I did, or take it as seriously. Perhaps they’ve forgotten him. Or perhaps they simply don’t care – life is too short and too full of more immediate worries and amusements to get too agitated about things so complex and tough to grapple with.

The more I pondered on the CFO’s views the more it took me back to the framework that we had proposed in our 2014 book, Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business. The “give to get” ratio was an observation that if the value of what an individual gets – personalized services, convivence, faster outcomes, lower cost – is greater than what that individual gives – personal data, which has little immediate value to the individual – then the individual will in all likelihood accept the tradeoff of personal data for a good, service or experience. This concept, we argued in our book, is at the heart of the FAANG success story (which has changed the rules of business). The CFO’s views seemed in line with this perspective.

What has changed though – at least in my thinking - thanks to Zuboff and Snowden, is an appreciation of the value of personal data and what is being lost if it is given anyway without consideration. Zuboff makes the case that the FAANG vendors have used our data (our “behavioral surplus” in her language) in a manner akin to the conquistadores of the 16th century; i.e., by monetizing something that previously had no monetary value to the conquered - in the Age of Discovery, land, in the Age of Algorithms, “Code Halos”. Snowden argues that the Intelligence Community has trampled over the Constitution and changed the rights of men and women in a way that has never been subjected to a democratic vote. Few politicians have been aware of what has been going on and consequently no one in the general public has had a clue. An infrastructure has been built with the public purse but without public assent.

To structure my thoughts, and to try and frame the tension between my concern and my friend’s indifference, the following list of “pros” and “cons” of surveillance and surveillance capitalism outline what is at stake.

  PROS CONS

SURVEILLANCE

  • Keeps good guys safe
  • Keeps bad guys out
  • Unobtrusive
  • Acts as a deterrent
  • Encourages good behavior
  • Captures “precrime” data
  • Acts as reassurance
  • Reduces personal privacy
  • Reduces personal freedom
  • Freezes free speech
  • Creates a “Big Brother” society
  • Creates a “nanny state”
  • Brings into disrepute the role of government
  • Blurs moral and legal boundaries
  • Undermines the rule of law
  • Increases societal “paranoia”
  • Feeds the lunatic fringe
  • Everlasting/uninventable infrastructure

SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM

  • Convenience (via cookies etc.)
  • Personalized services and experiences
  • Lower prices (of services and experiences)
  • Reduces personal privacy
  • Increases cyber insecurity (hacking etc.)
  • Value of personal data accrues to third parties
  • Narrows choices through creation of algorithmic “echo chambers”
  • Increases supply side manipulation
  • Surge pricing increases
  • Information asymmetry (supply side high, demand side low)
  • “Myth of convenience” (e.g. password management)
  • Everlasting/uninventable infrastructure

The first observation you may have when looking at this table is that there are many more cons than pros. That is telling. In fact, when looked at cold, the pros look substantially less material than the cons. “Keeping the bad guys out” and the “good guys safe” are the substantive arguments for Surveillance, and clearly have trumped all other arguments and objections that may have been raised by those politicians in the know over recent decades. But, Snowden and others have asked, are they really the only ways to do that? And at what cost? Even President Obama mused in public (sharing some of the debate that must have been raging in secure rooms), just because we have the ability to do something, doesn’t mean we should necessarily do that something (I paraphrase). The cost and convenience argument of Surveillance Capitalism weakens when the reality of surge pricing and information asymmetry is taken into consideration.

The second observation is that laying out the two sides of the argument (of the two sides of the same coin) doesn’t make it any easier to come to a cold logical determination that either side is platonically right or wrong. I look at this table and feel worried and disturbed and confused and uncertain. I could make both the pro and the con argument equally convincingly I believe.

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In 2018, at Davos, I asked Alex Karp (a key gene in the pool referenced above), “Is Edward Snowden a hero or a villain?” His answer (in a public forum)? “Both”.

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Conor Friedersdorf, of The Atlantic magazine, wrote in 2013, “We are counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils”. [This was a quote we referenced in Code Halos].

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I’m reminded of the old chestnut, “if you’re not thoroughly confused, you’re not adequately informed”.

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So, where do we land in this great debate that Zuboff and Snowden have framed for us? A debate that may be the greatest of this generation - one whose resolution will echo down through the history ahead of us. Disciples of Orwell or Dave Eggers (I’ve long called The Circle the prequel to Nineteen Eighty-Four) will be clear where they stand. Members (and fans) of the Industrial-Military-Complex (especially its cyber wing) will likewise be adamant that what they’re doing is right, even if an ungrateful nation doesn’t see it that way. Everyone else – 90% of society – will be somewhere in the greyness between the poles of black and white.

Maybe my financial friend is right that I should worry about more important things. But maybe I’m right that there isn’t anything else more important to worry about. Maybe Surveillance and Surveillance Capitalism are our new normal and we all simply have to learn to stop worrying and love (or at least tolerate) them. Maybe a great awakening is coming that will see us scream that we are not merely numbers. All I do know is that you should read both Zuboff’s and Snowden’s books. Blissful ignorance is no stance at all, not when some of the most important issues of humankind’s very existence are being adjudicated before our very eyes. By our very fingertips.


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