Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘Big Other’ and ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ as Future Economic Models
Shoshana Zuboff’s recently published article on what she has termed Information Civilization is a compact and helpful analysis of the kind of internet economies that are emerging in the early twenty-first century. This blog post is a commentary on that text. She takes Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian as her foil, referencing his two articles Computer Mediated Transactions (2010) and Beyond Big Data (2013).
Paul Mason‘s imminent book ‘Postcapitalism’ is plugged this weekend in the Guardian with an extended essay on the subject. Accompanied by some excellent graphics, some of which I’ve reproduced here, the broad thesis is that capitalism as we know it is ending, and that we are moving into a ‘sharing economy’, but at its heart is a Marxist argument about information and power. Mason goes so far as to argue that the changes we are witnessing herald the arrival of a new kind of human being, a sort of cocktail of Marxist proletarianism, social Darwinism, and Kurzweilian posthumanism.
I was asked a question recently about the role of the church – in particular the Roman Catholic Church – and how it could be reinvigorated. What is it missing, my interlocutor asked, in order to connect? The discussion led to some interesting thought connections. In the first instance, there appears to be a question about what role the church truly played in social structures – relative to the state – in more ‘successful’ times. In truth, it appears that the Church served as a quasi-state structure.
Bob Neuwirth‘s 2011 book on The Stealth of Nations looked at informal economies and structures. We’ve discussed informal economies this on this blog before, but also informal justice systems. That concept was about current day emerging countries, but if we go back fifty, one hundred years, there were limited formal state structures as we understand them today even in Western developed economies. Police forces are a relatively recent innovation, and in their earliest days they were sporadic at best. Hospitals and schools run by the state are similarly – broadly speaking – an innovation of the twentieth century. Before that, disputes were often resolved by community leaders – priests – and healthcare and education, such as it was, was provided by Churches. Whatever the Spiritual function, the practical matters of social organization were arguably far more important.
Nationalism, and National Identity, have long been a passion of mine. But whatever of its role in defining personal and community identity, as a structure it is in flux. The concept of the nation state in many ways defined the history of the twentieth century: in the lead up to World War I, the subsequent establishment of the League of Nations and various boundary commissions, then World War II and its various alliances, and the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union and the retrenchment from Empire, establishing so many new nation states all over Africa and Asia in particular. The Nation was sovereign, and inviolable; what happened within the State was solely the preserve of the State, and no other State would intervene in matters domestic (until Kosovo, and after Rwanda).
The New York Times and the Guardian have been digging ever deeper into the activities of the US National Security Agency or NSA following the leaking by Edward Snowdon of information about how they were spying both on countries and ordinary people at home. Hot on the heels of the Chelsea Manning and Wikileaksdiplomatic cables episode, there has been a constant flow of stories reporting on nefarious activities of spooks and governments, embarrassing opinions, and the mechanisms by which international diplomacy and spying are conducted, though Wired Magazine had got there first. There are numerous angles to all of this. There is the technology problem, an Orwellian, Kurtzweilian post-humanist dystopia where technology trumps all, and big data and analytics undermines or redefines the essence of who we are and forces a kind of a re-evaluation of existence. There is the human rights problem, the balancing of the right to privacy and – generally speaking – an avoidance of judgement of the individual by the state, with the obligation to secure the state. This issue is complex – if for example we have an ability to know, to predict, to foretell that people are going to do bad things, but we choose not to do that because it would require predicting also which people were going to do not-bad things, and therefore invade their privacy, is that wrong? Many people said after 9/11 ‘why didn’t we see this coming?’ Which leads to the question – if you could know all that was coming, would you want to know?
On the plane to New York I was reading an interesting article in the Economist on The Politics of The Internet, that asked the question whether Internet activism could develop into a ‘real political movement’. It was an interesting sentence construction, one that presupposed how politics should work, and that the real effect of significant change may not be within the system – in the form of a political party, one that spans borders – but with the system itself. For example, open source software should not succeed at all based on the market based assumptions of equity distribution. It succeeds in spite of the system, not because of it. At the same time, I’m reading Zizek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, notwithstanding his pathological fear of footnotes.
I posted just yesterday about the Informal Economy described by Robert Neuwirth as System D, where it is projected that by 2020 two thirds of the world’s workers will operate. That’s an economy almost entirely independent of the state, and the nation state structure. It all harks back to the Industrial Revolution, which spawned Marxism and the labour movement, a movement that brought communism and great intellectual struggle. We have to believe that within those workers there will be able leaders; English as a language is increasingly unifying peoples. It could be an interesting century yet!
I mentioned in passing yesterday that ‘In Africa, many tribes operate … with their own systems of justice’, though I did not have a reference. This morning, my attention was brought to a recent UN Development Program (UNDP) report entitled Informal Justice Systems. In it, the report states that ‘…80% of disputes are resolved through informal justice systems in some countries’. The claim is based on research by Ewa Wojkowska . The combination of the Informal Economy and Informal Justice is of course mesmerising. If those two beasts can find some resonance with an Informal Security apparatus, then hey presto, you have a de facto State, but not one in the conventional family of nations, rather is it more like some globalised feudalism, a million miles from Manhattan.