Is 4IR just Surveillance Capitalism by Another Name?

Professor Shoshana Zuboff sounds the alarm on “surveillance capitalism,” where data is packaged and commercialized, often outside the public eye.

By Xische Editorial, February 1, 2018

Source: Faber14/ Shutterstock

Source: Faber14/Shutterstock

For hundreds of years, capitalism has evolved by taking things and bringing them into the marketplace where they can be bought, sold, and traded. These items are called commodities, and the market is always on the hunt for new ones. The transition into the Fourth Industrial Revolution has brought with it an entirely new set of commodities, which the majority of people around the world don’t fully understand.

In the Second Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 19th century and was characterized by the rise of steel, oil, and electricity, labour became a commodity. The work people once performed in their homes was brought into the marketplace and commodified as wage labour to be bought and sold. Nature itself was brought into the marketplace in the form of land and real estate. Emissions trading through carbon credits is a one more recent example of commoditization.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution or “digital revolution” is characterized by global connectivity facilitated by emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, and 3D printing, to name a few. Just like industrial capitalism before it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has established a new commodities, such as data,  for the market to buy and sell.

In her groundbreaking new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff takes a deep look at these new commodities and uses the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the new marketplace. Her word choice may sound alarming, but it is a useful way to understand our new position in this economy, where data we generate through our online behavior is packaged and commercialized, often without our consent.

The core business principle at work in surveillance capitalism, according to Zuboff, is to collect as much data about our experiences as possible. The trend began with the collection of our browsing and search history and spread into all of our digital behavior. It then migrated into all of our location data with the rise of mobile software like Android or Google Maps. More recently, it has come to include matching our online behavior with real-world shopping habits, as Google did in 2017.

The goal is to acquire as much data about our experiences as possible so as to create a full picture of our behavioral responses. This profile is enhanced by machine-learning intelligence that has become remarkably effective at predicting what we will do, or take an interest in, or buy. Such valuable data can then be sold to any business that may want to know what actions we’ll take and how they can influence our future decisions. The prospect of influencing a person’s desires or shopping habits might sound like the material of a science fiction novel, but it is taking place in the new surveillance capitalism marketplace.

The idea underpinning these dramatic transformations is straightforward: private human experience can be claimed for the marketplace, translated into behavioral analysis to predict future actions, and sold into new markets that profit from human behavior.

Zuboff chooses to use the term surveillance carefully. She argues that the collection of our experiences has been done in ways that are designed to be hidden from us. Only in the past year have consumers become concerned about the amount of data technology companies have about us, but we still don’t fully understand how data is collected. After the European Union’s data protection law came into effect and allowed users to request a copy of all the data that technology companies have collected on them, several journalists have tried to make sense of the data. Few have succeeded.

How does the harvesting of data to fuel predictive models of human behavior compare to previous versions of industrial capitalism? Surveillance capitalism is not inflicting physical harm on people or the environment. But, as Zuboff argues, the physical manifestation of the ills of industrial capitalism made it easier to see the problems it was creating. By identifying the problem, lawmakers were able to write laws that safeguarded the population and the environment. Child labor and unsafe working conditions, for example, were outlawed.

The challenge now is that this new form of capitalism has been able to flourish for the past 20 years virtually unimpeded by law or regulation. How data is being collected and used has been hidden from public view. We haven’t been able to see the corrosive downsides of the transformation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and thus haven’t been able to protect society accordingly.

Surveillance capitalism, as Zuboff terms it, is here to stay. No one is calling for an end to Facebook or Google or Apple or other major participants in the data marketplace. However, we are finally starting to grapple with the impact of this new commodity. Spurred by recent public scandals, lawmakers in the US and Europe have begun  working to establish regulations that will protect the general public from the misuse of data.

As a commodity, data will continue to grow ever more valuable in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Just as in the past, we need progressive legislation and regulation to ensure society is safeguarded from the wildest temptations of the marketplace. What form this regulation will take is still a subject of intense debate, but we should take succor that light is finally being shone on the data marketplace.