On Surveillance Capitalism (and ultimately the climate catastrophe)

Undraw’s “The world is mine”

We are all currently witness to a world shaped and delivered by capitalists. When left unconstrained, as they largely have been, (except in the U.S. during the period of economic prosperity brought on largely by New Deal interventions and eviscerated by the neoliberal response) capitalists follow, as John Bellamy Foster uncovers, an inherent tendency to “degrade the environment that sustains life”.¹

Surveillance capitalists are cut from the same cloth as their late 18th — 19th century brethren but with a frightening and, as Shoshana Zuboff has established, unprecedented new pattern.² Much as coal-powered steam usurped water-powered technologies due to steam’s ability to open up capitalists’ access to exploitable labor, the surveillance capitalist logic has usurped the original dream of the digital age (in fact runs contrary to it),³ not because it is inevitable, but because of its ability to open up surveillance capitalists’ access to an exploitable public.

Pioneered by Google, copied by Facebook (owner of Instagram and WhatsApp, among many others, in case you thought your messages were private now you know better), and being quickly taken up by the remaining big tech players, surveillance capitalism has taken its violent (have you watched the news lately?) indifference machine and captured almost every mind with it.

It is, again, an unprecedented and frightening reality. One that is sometimes hard to grasp because it is designed to lure you into its machinations unaware and willing. The surveillance capitalists are remarkably successful at doing this, just start to search the internet and see what search engine you are opening, or which browser’s URL bar you are typing into, if it starts with a “G”, well, enough said.

The older big tech players, Microsoft and Apple, were hesitant to jump aboard the surveillance capital train, but it appears they have begun the same tactics, even joining forces in some instances, in a disturbing trend of cooperation. In the case of Microsoft, who built its entire business on the operating system, the company now believes “the operating system is no longer the most important layer for us”, in the words of their current CEO, Satya Nadella.⁴ This makes sense when considering surveillance capitalism has proven to be far more lucrative in the short term, we will have to see about the future.

Apparently, the same insane logic that drives unconstrained capitalists to race toward the destruction of organized human life, allows surveillance capitalists to not be troubled by racing toward the destruction of our humanity.⁵ We are all going to be dead anyway, so who cares let’s get rich and the rest are all suckers (or potatoes). As evidenced by the CEO of Facebook’s infamous public testimony where he called people who trust him “dumb f****”. Suffice to say, Facebook is doing just fine.

The other problem is that surveillance capitalism preaches of a “God” state, wherein the surveillance capitalist is all-knowing, all-controlling, and all-powerful. This is a tantalizing concept that is honey to the bee and is delineated by Microsoft’s 2013 patent on the behavioral modification of a persons’ mental state.⁶

Troubling stuff. Perhaps it is fitting that venture capital money encouraged the founders of Google to dive down the surveillance capital rabbit hole in a quest for “sustained and exponential profits”.⁷ Venture capitalists appear largely to be living embodiments of capitalism unconstrained; incredibly good for the few of them, not so good for the rest of us.

Perhaps the irony is that the indifferent logic of surveillance capitalism is ultimately bad for the surveillance capitalists too. For their tactics directly undermine our society’s collective ability to unite in the face of our biggest challenge and largest catastrophe (the climate catastrophe). More rather, surveillance capitalism tactics sew doubt and division, effects that appear accelerated when faced with troubling truths. These platforms are now generally understood to profit from algorithms designed to show their users (what they call their raw material) behavioral modifying things. Meaning a person who believes, or perhaps is capable of suspecting, asparagus is stealing their underwear will suddenly discover articles, videos, and other users confirming asparagus as the culprit (along with those claiming otherwise to be nothing more than vegetable conspirators).

This is a system with troubling ramifications for a global society that needs to verse itself with the dangers of our human-created climate catastrophe and work collectively toward solutions. It is a sophisticated system, with sizeable investments (most notably the public’s), and it is by no means slowing down. Indeed, it is hard to imagine surveillance capitalist companies changing because there is simply too much immediate profit and perceived power (“God” state) at stake for them.

It is no surprise then, that is equally hard to imagine the public ever attaining enough solidarity to propel their leaders, governments, and businesses to successfully address the climate catastrophe. When the system that we believe unites, empowers, and mobilizes us, is the very system designed to atomize (separate into distinct individuals), exploit, and pacify us, how will we ever be successful in uniting to tackle the single greatest challenge that has ever faced us?

It does not have to be this way.

Surveillance capitalism logic is not inevitable, though they would like you to believe it, just as the destruction of people’s livelihoods (think anyone who depends on the fossil-fuel industry to survive) to confront and reorganize human society to overcome the climate catastrophe does not have to be the outcome from coming together to implement a Green New Deal (though the Koch industry would like you to believe it).⁸

The success of surveillance capitalists, and unconstrained capitalists like Koch Industries, demands a brief look at the nature of fascism. Fascism as noted by the late author and former British intelligence officer, John le Carré, was defined by Mussolini as being, “the moment when you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between political and corporate power”.⁹ Jason Stanley, a Yale professor of philosophy, describes fascism as not being able to exist alongside the truth as it needs to destroy truth in order to destroy freedom.¹⁰ Henry Wallace, Vice President to FDR, describes a fascist as being “easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact”.¹¹

Surveillance capitalist logic, and often unconstrained capitalist logic, lends itself to the destruction of truth for profit and thus democracy for fascism. All that these mutations of logic are concerned with is the means of maximum profit. In the case of surveillance capitalism, that means is through harvesting, extorting, controlling, and modifying its users.

In terms of the climate catastrophe, there is a direct link between calamity and the rise of fascism. Prominent author and scholar, Naomi Klein, discusses in an important book (among many other things) the need for society to confront not just the climate catastrophe alone, but also the subsequent uprising of eco-fascism that is expected to follow in its wake.¹² That is to say that the existence and mobilization of fascist ideas, groups, leaders, governments, and businesses is supported by the logic, practices, and networks of surveillance capitalism.

We must understand that we are all victims of surveillance capitalism and the climate catastrophe.

We must dump the surveillance capitalist logic, products, and systems where and when we can, and compel our government to intervene, break up, and reorganize where and when we cannot.¹³

We must motivate the intelligent minds building these indifferent surveillance systems to redirect their energies and passions to saving our organized human existence and preserving our humanity.

We must and we can come together.

1. John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology 105:2, 1999.

Noam Chomsky, Robert Pollin, “Capitalism and the Climate Crisis,” Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal (Verso, 2020), 51.

2. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019), 8–14.

3. Malm, “The Origins of Fossil Capital,” 33–4.

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019), 9.

4. Tom Warren, “Microsoft Doesn’t Think Windows is Important Anymore”, The Verge, October 3, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/10/3/20896908/microsoft-windows-satya-nadella-importance-apps-services-android.

5. Noam Chomsky, Robert Pollin, “Capitalism and the Climate Crisis,” Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal (Verso, 2020), 1–13.

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019), 3–17.

6. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019), 411–413.

7. Kara Swisher, “Dot-Com Bubble has Burst; Will Things Worsen in 2001?” Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2000, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB97709118336535099.

8. Leonard, “David Koch”; “‘Kochland’: How David Koch Helped Build an Empire to Shape US Politics and Thwart Climate Action,” Democracy Now!, August 27, 2019.

9. John le Carré, “John le Carré (1931–2020) on the Iraq War, Corporate Power, the Exploitation of Africa & More”, Democracy Now!, December 25, 2020.

10. Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, (Random House, 2018).

11. Henry Wallace, “Fascism and the Denial of Truth: What Henry Wallace Can Teach Us About Trump”, Truthout, July 30, 2017, https://truthout.org/articles/fascism-and-the-denial-of-truth-what-henry-wallace-can-teach-us-about-trump/.

12. Naomi Klein, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (Simon & Schuster, 2019).

13. Tulsi Gabbard, “Break Up Big Tech Act of 2020”, H.R. 8922, 116th Congress 2019–2020, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/8922/text.

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Creator @ Metamorphic

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Creator @ Metamorphic

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