miércoles, 27 de julio de 2016

Brief introduction to surveillance capitalism

Some weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a keynote speech given by Shoshana Zuboff. Many people study the digital transformation we are living and makes easier to others to understand it, but it is difficult to find someone who is more brilliant explaining the excesses and rationale of the greed for information of Internet giants.

Her speech was around the concept of "surveillance capitalism", which she defines in one of her papers as "a new form of information capitalism that  aims to predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control".  Silently, we are attending a mutation of capitalism based on the accumulation of data assets. As she warns, we have lived previous technology revolutions that have brings new levels of automatisation "But when it comes to information technology, automation simultaneously generates information that provides a deeper level of transparency to activities that had been either partially or completely opaque". This new source of knowledge becomes in a source of unlimited power to those who are in control of it. The data originated from automatisation and mediation of activities starts up a virtuous circle of creation of services based on behaviour that generates new information and, therefore, new services. 

Until the present century, capitalism was based on the division of labour. After many generations, we reached a balance (probably not fair enough) between firms and workers based on the awareness of the unity of worker-customers. The companies saw the human beings as the source of customers and employers, and therefore there was an interdependence between the progress of companies and workers-customers. This is not the case of the Internet giants, the so called GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). On one hand. although they are heading the list of more valued companies the number of employees are a few ten of thousands ( As contrast: at the height of its power in 1953, General Motors was the world’s largest private employer). On the other hand, they break the unity worker-customers through mediation. GAFA customers are not the consumers but the private companies who hire the ads and other services.  So in "surveillance capitalism" the value of human beings for companies are not as worker-customer but merely as a source of information and the new power is not based in the division of labour but in the division of learning.  The more the companies are able to learn the more powerful they are, so it is needed a new equilibrium around data: Who participates and how? Who decides who participates? What happens when authority fails?

The rationale described above is behind the interest of GAFA in avoiding regulation related with the management digital information, not the risk of stifling the innovation. As Shosana Zubof says, the strategy to capture data is "incursions into legally and socially undefended territory until resistance is encountered". Therefore, the bigger the lack of regulation regarding the handling of information, the less the resistance and the better for increasing their resources of data. And therefore, their power.  

This is only an introduction on surveillance capitalism. In this summer, read a paper or essay written by Shoshana Zubof. You will feel like Neo in his first minutes out of the Matrix.

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