Image courtesy of screenrant.com
SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM AND THE BID TO DISTRACT
Surveillance Capitalism was a term that was coined by Soshanna Zuboff while explaining the activities of Big Brands riding on tech advancement like social media, and how they influence our minds to further their profits. Wikipedia notes the definition of SC as an economic system centered around the commodification of personal data with the core purpose of profit making.
There is a book that Zuboff authored, that is themed around the same, about how Big Brands are forcing us to buy more and more, how they use our data to push us to consume what we don’t need or want – and they are calling this kind of an unhindered access to our data, Surveillance Capitalism.
However, this term, and the message that this term tries to convey, might not be the whole truth.
The term Surveillance Capitalism could be a bid to distract. I would try to explain how this term could be misleading us. And I would do that by taking some examples to highlight what these essays, articles, and their authors overlook, or perhaps want us to overlook.
In her book Soshanna says FB, Google etc steal our data. But is that true? I believe we agree to their terms n conditions. Technically, that’s not stealing. Agreed, most of us don’t read the whole thing. And very few among them that read understand the whole spread. But… if one did, and he/she disagreed, that person would have an option to stay away.
Then, most of us by now know and realize that Big Brands and Big Tech follows us, and keep tracking our interests for their commercial gains, and keep hitting us with product ads of which they think we might be interested in. They try to sell supplements, or TVs or wallets or car, depending on our browsing patterns. Yes; this is a pattern that can only be extracted through tracking and surveillance. But as I said, most of us know and realize that already.
In a sense, this act of tracking to sell a few commodities is not as bad as it is being made out to be. A personalized version of a marketplace, this could very well the culmination of what has been going on for a long time. From mailers to promotional campaigns, to ATL/BTL projects, to billboards, electronic and print media ads… were these the efforts of yesteryears not a bid to get us to purchase?
So, what has changed? Nothing much! It is just those same brands today that are using the best available media to grab your attention – and in a way that is more direct, more personal, and optimizes resources.
Think of a Facebook page trying to promote a home delivery kitchen during this pandemic. This is perhaps a man who has lost his job during 2020, and this home delivery is his honest effort to stay afloat during these turbulent times. His decision to pay FB a nominal amount to cover a focussed number of households within, say, a radius of 5kms from his kitchen, is a much better utilization of his limited ad budget. If this were 20 years ago, he would have had to spend a fortune in media ads with no assured returns, while today, he stands a much better chance, thanks to FB specifications thru target advertisement in terms of distance and interest levels.
This part – I could call it Personal Capitalism – to me, is quite ok. But there is another part that’s not OK with me.
[But before I tell you more about that part, you should know I am not considering attempts to get people to focus and stay angry on these small home delivery guys and tee shirt sellers under the tag of Surveillance Capitalism, and under the narrative that they ‘steal’ data; No, that’s not my focus.]
THE PICTURE THAT BIG TECH DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE
My focus is the part where the Big Tech Juggernaut has joined hands with certain states and certain ideologies to cascade a global surveillance mechanism to control the sociocultural, socio-political, religio-political narrative.
Let me take a few examples:
Li Fei Fei was appointed as the Independent Director at Twitter (May 2020). She is a Chinese-Am AI expert. She was previously employed with Google where she was a part of Project Dragonfly – a search engine suiting China’s censorship rules. She was also instrumental in the opening of an AI research facility in Beijing. Chinese media reports her as the google scientist that led the efforts to build China’s AI military operations. According to Radio Free Asia, she has ties to the CPC. After her joining, Twitter began taking down content that were critical of the CPC/Chinese Govt.
YOUTUBE right from 2019 began removing comments that went against the CPC. This was an auto-feature then; I suspect that the feature still remains.
Jennifer Zeng, a Chinese labour camp survivor once gave a video interview to brighteon.com. FB immediately banned the video when it was posted.
Besides, we all know of FB’s community standards. A hint of assertive nationalism and FB descends on you like a ton of bricks to get you banned. Yet people calling openly for dismembering certain states like J&K stay on despite being reported multiple times.
Amazon purges books that are designed to help people deal with unwanted same-sex attractions, and are written by licensed professionals (Michael Brown in Daily Surge).
Besides, we all know how Google, Apple, FB ganged up together to cancel the app called Parler.
And how Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account.
To remove the media presence of a sitting US President by unelected guys – technocrats or whatever – reminds me of the Yuri Bezmenov lecture on Demoralization of a Nation. Yuri said: “How come they have almost monopolistic power on your mind? They can rape your mind. But who elected them? How come they have the nerve to decide what is good or bad for you, or for the leader that you elected?”
These are only a few of the news that one can quickly read and research about. I am sure if censoring is the key, there are million others that don’t make it to the search engines. And if censoring, cancelling, banning at one hand while tailor-making information and content on the other hand in a bid to dovetail these two are concerned – there is only one word for it: COMMUNISM.
So to me, this is Personal Capitalism and Surveillance Communism. A red carpet for you when you want to peddle your ware – till the woke mob prompted by these articles, essays and books chooses to destroy your meagre business (to perhaps create a vacuum that can then be filled by the Big Brands). And a red brick wall for you the moment you share contents on social awareness that doesn’t fall in line with the narrative that the Big-Tech Juggernaut wants to peddle.
And even then, that is not the entire picture, for, that is a part of a bigger landscape.
To understand that landscape, we must make sense of it through the different sets of International Orders, and the coming of the new one. I think a little focus on that is fundamental to this Big Game, of Techno Feudalism and the unelected billionaires.
A NEW ORDER?
Since we could very well be standing at a point in time when the Westphalian Order of nation-states is on the verge of collapse or at least susceptible to the coming of their reduced primacy in international order, geopolitical analysts are contemplating on what happens next. That the Westphalian order looks shaky is true – the old unit called ‘country’ that people and state used to rally under, no longer maintains its dominance. People now can and do rally under religion, ideology in numbers and in a manner that borders of a nation does not seem to contain. Oftentimes, they are made to rally under pretexts and reasons that have the power to undermine nations and states. Case in point – the Colour Revolutions.
Many leaders and statesmen, Tony Blair for one, have actively spoken against the Westphalian system of sovereign nation states, and so have many external organized interventions, that have actively collaborated bring down governments of countries during the recent past.
The question then is what happens after the Westphalian Order?
Political theorists argue that sovereign states would soon disappear, and new order will take over. This new global order would be like the overarching Christendom that was the foundation of the medieval European kingdoms and existed based on fundamentals of exhibiting overlapping authorities and extracting multiply loyalties.
Well, that is not something unknown to the modern world. This kind of a medieval transnationalism is visible through what we have come to call Globalization – one that was comparatively limited in its capacity as long as it was a bipolar world – and was to take its full shape after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the transnational order rushed in to fill the vacuum – the mission was to ‘end history’, as Francis Fukuyama would write. In other words, it was a bid to homogenize the world. Since it was the triumph of West over Soviet Union, the transnational global order was essentially a western construct; the assumption was that this homogenization would essentially be ‘westernization’. I am not talking about the underlying financial/profit motives that were there already; for that’s a part of a different discussion.
WESTPHALIA IS THE ONLY MODERN STRUCTURE; THE OTHER TWO ARE MEDIEVAL
After the initial success during this bid to homogenize the world, something interesting happened. Japan mixed the globalization forces with its own local culture and identity, and out came the concept of Regionalism.
But while the Japanese local identity that formed amidst this wave did not clash with the transnational homogenizing force, with time started emerging stronger and more agitated and deterministic identities; identities that were on a course of violent collision with Westernization and were quite ok with it. Example – Islam.
So, what got created as a result of decades of this interplay between globalization and regional values was a three-layered structure at the helm of international relations and affairs:
1. Westphalian nation-states,
2. Post-Westphalian transnational forces of globalization – the Big Pharma, Big Banks, Big Oil, WTO, UNO, EU, NATO and the likes: designed along the model of medieval overarching Christendom.
3. and Regional Identities – like Islam, like Hindutva, like Eastern Christianity after the fall of USSR – systems and structures that were pre-Westphalian (thus medieval) in their nature.
Now, while the initial assumption was that the Post Westphalian order would lead to a homogenization with the aid of the Westphalian sovereign state structures, the rise of the Pre-Westphalian structural identities (more importantly, the conflicting ones) have slowed the process down significantly, limiting it only to consumption patterns. The internalization of globalized homogenous values did not happen.
Why did it fail? what are the factors? That is a picture that can be understood through the Middle Eastern saga of Western interest in hydrocarbon, and their lack of interest in the process of nation-building. And while that is a part of a different discussion the fact stands that sovereign nation-state system hasn’t quite managed to prevail as homogenously as the proponents of Westphalia might have wished or expected, and neither has a transnational force like Globalization.
A NEW WORLD? AND A NEW ORDER?
Today, towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it looks like a whole new world has been created. A world that is now trying to create its own universalist transnational order. This world is a space; it is called the Cyberspace. This is a space that exists, it has its own rules, it extracts loyalties, it reserves the right to ban those that it wants, and it chooses to partner with whoever it wants under reasons that are best known to them.
They sit on top of the big industries today. Because they have this whole new world – and even though it is virtual world – everybody wants to be there. And that the Big Industries would want a marketplace where everyone can be reached, is but obvious. In short, the unelected tech billionaires are the Gods of a New World – a world that didn’t exist 50 years ago! And so they behave in the same way that the Western God usually behave; with his rules, regulations, promises and threats.
The current three-layered order is thus somewhat like this:
1. Cyberspace that has gobbled up the earlier avatar of transnational globalization and their components.
2. Westphalian nation-states
3. Regional pre-Westphalian orders
Now, for some strange reasons, Cyberworld has chosen to ignore the representations of the Westphalian nation-states, and is instead showing an inclination to partner with more medieval religious structures, political structures like CPC, and post-industrial and post-religious communism influenced movement like wokeism.
The question is why this strange partnership?
Now this is entirely my guess: My guess is that the transnational forces failed to achieve homogenization while partnering with the Westphalian order. So, Big Tech chose to cherry-pick those identities and structures that it considers are suited best (in terms of power, reach, and influence) to execute the reduction of socio-cultural diversity in this round. As of today, out of Transnationalism, selective Medieval Regionalism, and Westphalia – Westphalia is the weakest link. It is the most benign among the existing systems; it is built upon an accommodative value that believes in co-existence of other nations and thus exhibits a fair degree of plurality. And plurality in governance isn’t what Big Tech promotes. If the bid is to homogenize, one partners with the biggest universalist expansionist structures.
What happens with opposing forces within this team of Big Tech, who remains as the last man standing, I don’t know. These things need much more nuanced understanding; there has to be many more, much detailed attempts there if we are to make any sense out of the future of this new global order.
As of now, I can assume that Big Tech is out to disrupt the sovereign nation-state structure, and the smaller, political boundary-bound regionalism (like in India or the Western RW movements of Europe), while heavily propping up the likes of Wokeism that political boundaries cannot contain.
In fact, the transnational nature of wokeism is being used to undermine the nation-states fairly successfully. What physical or cyber Wokeism is doing today through the destruction of the university education systems and spaces, the demoralizing of local religion, local culture, and undermining the state-authority to govern, as a few of their subversive tactics, interestingly, are all along the lines of what Yuri Bezmenov had warned us about a few decades ago.
Their inner maze of this partnership is also unclear.
Today for some reason wokeism – intolerant towards most things seem strangely accommodative of two – CPC/China, and Islam. The ideas that they base their execution methods while trying to undermine the sovereign state and socio-economic structures around the world are laced with Islamic and Communist expansionist attitude. I think a proper study to understand the funding source of woke movement could provide clues.
Then, there seems to be a ground there somewhere that could ignite a certain amount of potential politics between CPC based communism and Islam. CPC for instance, is definitely trying to get a new dependant class emerge through its BRI project or through its reorientation of vast stretches of Islamic territories. That has the potential to put it on a collision course with Islam.
BIG TECH SUBMISSION PROGRAM
But whether CPC goes the Soviet Union way and stamps out religious identity all along the heartland like the USSR achieved during its prime, or it goes the United States way and ignites more radicalism like the USA did in the Middle East – remains to be seen. What stands as of now is Techno Feudalism and their bid to establish a new order through a combination of Personal Capitalism and a Surveillance Communism. Let’s call it the Big Tech Submission Program. This program is about three things:
1. Distractive Consumption Patterns – to keep us preoccupied with commodities and services that we otherwise don’t want or need;
2. Compliance – keep us compliant with a certain value system, and
3. Sinopticon Surveillance – a 24/7 mechanism in place to ensure we stick to points 1 & 2.
What happens in the future? Difficult to predict, even with thorough research. But what looks like as of now is what Yuval Noah Harari speaks of – the coming of the merger of Infotech with Biotech – of hackable human beings and AI dominance. Afterall, if homogenisation is the idea, it is only when one can hack into a man’s mind can that happen.