These are uncertain times for Silicon Valley. Tech companies are laying off employees they hired in the pandemic. Twitter, under Elon Musk, has pushed advertisers away. Apple, a self-proclaimed privacy advocate, wants to reduce Google’s reach. It is possible to imagine that the digital western will become more civilized.
However, for critics of big tech, there is little relief. Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School, published “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” in 2019 — a blast about how tech companies have made billions of dollars by siphoning off private data. “We thought we were searching Google, but Google was searching us,” she summarized.
Today, Zuboff is frustrated that efforts to curb tech companies are so fragmented. “We have fantastic scholars, researchers, advocates who are focused on privacy, others are focused on disinformation, others on the relationship to democracy,” she said, when we met in London. This “balkanization” reduces the ability to identify the “real source of damage”: people’s data is treated as a costless resource, just as forests and other parts of nature were in past centuries.
Zuboff cites data that, in the United States, which does not have a federal law on privacy, people have their location exposed 747 times a day. In the European Union, which she says has the “best regulation”, there are 376. “It’s better, but it’s nowhere near better enough.”
Mark Zuckerberg once promised that a predictive model would tell you, when you arrive in a strange city, which bar to go to, and a bartender would already have prepared your favorite drink. That dream faded based on practicality alone, not principle.
In an article published in November, Zuboff argued that Apple and Google had outpaced European health authorities in Covid tracking technology. “You can have surveillance capitalism and you can have democracy. You can’t have both,” she wrote. Apple created the illusion of acting like Robin Hood, when only democratic oversight could protect individual rights.
She sees her actions against Google as simply an “expansion” of surveillance capitalism. Tim Cook’s promises to protect privacy can be revoked at any time: “Users have no voice.”
Technological surveillance is important, argues Zuboff, because it robs us of “life-sustaining intimacy.” Individuals also cannot realistically choose to maintain their privacy. What we need is a right to sanctuary.
Last year, Brussels passed the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, its most comprehensive technology legislation to date. The UK Parliament is currently debating the Online Safety Bill. Zuboff wants them to be stepping stones.
Usually, in interviews, the journalist asks questions and the interviewee answers them. An interview with Zuboff is different. You ask questions, and more often than not, she answers with the basics — her step-by-step explanations of how surveillance capitalism took hold in this century.
Zuboff is particular about how her ideas are described, how things are put together, what pen she uses. She considers every detail. “Are you distracted if I stand? I’ll sit down. I tend to walk and talk,” she says, as we begin.
This particular mindset is, in technological terminology, a feature, not a flaw. It allows Zuboff to take the long view. In 1988, she published “In the Age of the Smart Machine” [Na era da máquina inteligente], which claimed that computers would change businesses in ways that earlier technologies had not. She later directed Odyssey, Harvard Business School’s educational program to help successful people decide how to spend the later part of their lives.
His work on surveillance capitalism was his own late-career flowering. It was published when she was 67 years old, after lightning burned down her family’s Maine home and after the unexpected death of her husband and co-author, businessman Jim Maxmin.
Zuboff claims that technology companies knew the public would never approve of data collections. “From the beginning they were understood as things that had to be secret, had to be camouflaged from users, so as not to provoke resistance.” She quotes a recent Google executive saying, “Won’t it scare people to know how much attention we’re paying?”
Today, technology companies “are becoming much more reluctant to patent their discoveries because they don’t want the public to know exactly what they are doing. In most cases, they are no longer making their personal data available to researchers.”
Thus, Zuboff sees the need for a regulatory fishing expedition. EU tech laws will create “new cadres of people with new combinations of skills that will go into corporations. Their mission will be to ‘pick up the hood’ to understand what’s really going on. One of the big problems we have is that most information coming out of companies is intentionally designed to be misleading. Information distortion is a form of rhetorical art genuinely practiced by these companies.”
Zuboff rarely uses short answers or simple terminology. However, she is blunt about content moderation –the attempts by companies to remove harmful content– which she describes as “quicksand…a totally losing proposition, really designed to keep us busy as long as possible so that they can keep getting away with what they’re really doing.”
She is most positive about age-appropriate design, where platforms are designed to minimize harm to children and collect less data from them. The UK pioneered age-appropriate design, but after Brexit it will lose Brussels’ “muscle power” against surveillance capitalism, says Zuboff. She also sees “a move to weaken and denaturalize the existing data protection regime with a data protection bill that favors big tech companies and perpetuates the misconception that democracy must get out of the way.”
The problem for privacy advocates is that their cause seems to offer too few advantages and too many drawbacks. For most European citizens, the biggest impact of privacy legislation is disrupting cookie pop-ups. Regulation appears impractical: the UK and France have wanted to set age limits for pornographic websites, but have so far failed to find effective ways to do so.
Likewise, Zuboff criticizes Apple and Google for taking control of Covid tracking, but what if their system simply worked better than the centralized systems favored by European health authorities? She laughs at the suggestion. But she admits that regulation is hampered “because we can’t get in [nas empresas de tecnologia] to find out what’s really going on. We are regulating with visors, we don’t understand our opponent well”.
Zuboff insists that his attack is not against the technology itself, but against the economic logic that underpins it – “theft”. It offers the possibility to use data and predictions for the common good. The counterargument is that there are basic tradeoffs. Technology services, whether it’s predicting text responses or the fastest driving routes, can only work by accumulating data and reducing our privacy.
I ask her what she thinks of Musk’s ownership of Twitter. “We have politicians, legislators, elected officials, and all citizens looking at one man and asking, ‘What will he do?’ Our political stability, our ability to know what’s true and what’s false, our health and to some extent our sanity are challenged on a daily basis depending on the decisions Musk makes. I find that fundamentally intolerable… These spaces don’t they can only exist under corporate control… We entered the digital age two decades ago, but never, as democracies, did we appreciate the significance of these technologies.”
Musk has put Donald Trump back on Twitter. The former US president’s Facebook suspension will end “in the coming weeks”, its parent company said. Zuboff is horrified. “It shouldn’t be a decision for individuals like Musk, Zuckerberg or anyone else.” The implications for democracy are huge. “In an information civilization, our information spaces must exist under public law and be governed by democratic institutions. With luck and determination, we will look back on the days of information oligarchs like Musk and Zuckerberg as the first primitive mistakes of a new civilization.” .”
She compares the tech giants of the West to China’s surveillance state. “This is a world where privacy has gone extinct. Privacy today is a zombie category. None of us have privacy, even as we saw it in the year 2000.”
His sense of dystopia is visceral. “Someone just invented a type of paint you can put on your face to confuse facial recognition. The kids on Reddit are really excited about it. It’s terrible, Henry!”
The abolition of surveillance capitalism requires new laws that allow societies to decide “what becomes data in the first place, what we share, with whom and for what purpose”.
Instead, technology advances, mostly in the form of artificial intelligence. “ChatGPT shook us. It shocked people, forcing us to recognize how far AI has come, with virtually no law and democratic governance to shape or constrain its development and application.” AI development relied on the theft of human data, he claims. She points hopefully to the EU’s proposed AI Act – “the first law to assert democratic governance over the application of AI”. But it’s hard not to feel that even when Silicon Valley stumbles, it’s still one step ahead.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
I have worked in the news industry for over 10 years and have been an author at News Bulletin 247 for the past 5 years. I mostly cover technology news and enjoy writing about the latest gadgets and devices. I am also a huge fan of music and enjoy attending live concerts whenever possible.