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.
So let’s say the State becomes a platform, like we talked about in the last post. In order to participate in the State, in order to pay taxes, and get educational accreditation, access healthcare, and to get licensed to own dogs, own a gun, or drive a car, you need to subscribe to the platform. Let’s say then that the platform allows for commercial entities to participate, to advertise their wares on the State Platform, to ‘compete’ for consumer attention based on big data analysis of citizen behaviour and experience. What are the other things that are happening with technology that impact upon the evolution of the state?
We mentioned in the last post a scenario where capital transcended human ownership, and became – through law – an entity in and of itself, lording it over mere humans. It sounds far-fetched, but is it? The discourse on inequality is about wealth accumulation of a small number of people, but it is essentially a discussion about the centralization of capital, where fewer and fewer people control that capital. Now, as the number of people controlling the capital decreases, the question arises: what happens if it gets down to two people, or one person, controlling the preponderance of capital? There are political answers to this, and social answers, but – for now – let’s consider the financial side.
In the West, Capital is generated primarily through the corporate-legal structures of western liberal democracy. In essence, companies produce goods and services, and accumulate assets and profits. They grow through acquisitions – other assets – and increase profitability. However, most companies are moving now towards virtualized infrastructures. What that means is that companies own less and less of their own assets, and become, essentially, capital generators, rather than capital owners. Let’s take a hypothetical example…
Piketty on Capital and Reich on Inequality are both essentially saying the same thing, that inequality is structurally bad, and growing. (We can revisit posts on social mobility and the inevitability of capitalist collapse to understand some of the ways in which this manifests itself.) In essence, Piketty – and Reich – argue that capital will continue to accrue to fewer and fewer people. There is a possible alternative, extended, dystopian view that suggests that capital – through the corporation – actually transcends human ownership entirely and become a virtualized entity in and of itself, a creature of law, that exists to perpetuate itself and grow. Therefore, in essence, capital exists to extract wealth from people, and rather than realising an objective of ‘raising all boats’, it actually pushes all boats into the water to the point of sinking, though not quite. For to sink those boats would be to undermine the source of wealth itself, and the essence of capital growth, which capital needs to survive.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson‘s America decided upon an Isolationist Foreign Policy concentrating their efforts on the battles at home. It wasn’t a new strategy – since the days of George Washington, the country as it emerged tried to distance itself from foreign entanglements, notwithstanding repeated encroachment on its borders by regional competitors and the death throes of European Power. The German ascendancy in the Atlantic finally forced their hand, and in order to protect the interests of America the country was forced into the war, and away from its isolationism. America, it appeared, could only advance her domestic interests if actively engaged on the International Stage.
Dan Byman’s defence of drones in Foreign Affairs (July / August 2013) sets out the case for drones, a highly effective, low risk method of taking out terrorists. The changed nature of terrorism, with its globalised, stateless, and highly distributed character certainly presents significant challenges to the defence of the realm. There are advantages over conventional military options – air strikes, ‘boots on the ground’, covert operations – and, in particular, the speed with which weaponised drones can be deployed makes them far more flexible tools for the military. The politics, Byman adds, can be tricky, but most governments within drone strike domains are tacitly acquiescent.
If the objective of the exercise is to defeat terrorism, or, rather, the immediate threat of terrorism, then Byman is right – drones are extremely effective. However, he is wrong in not addressing whether they advance the long term strategic interests of the United States. He limits his discussion on this to the prospect that drones create more terrorists in people whose families are killed or injured, perpetuating the hatred that turns people against America. The problems are deeper than that – and impact the core of who and what America is.