Not only when we are reading the news, but also when we are on Zoom-conferences, sending messages with Whatsapp, playing silly games on our mobile or when we switch on our robot vacuum to clean the mess in our flat, we are tracked and analyzed by thousands of companies that would like to sell us something - be it a product or a message (here you can check trackers in mobile apps).
What does this constant surveillance do to us? Is it a threat as activists claim? And can something be done about it? What is the culture, ethos and worldview within these increasingly powerful corporations Google, Facebook and Microsoft that are developing these technologies of surveillance?
New economic developments require detailed ethnographies!
In her article she reviews probably one of the most important recent books: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff - of of those few books that, as she writes, "forces one to radically question the way the world works":
Surveillance Capitalism is both an analysis and critique. Zuboff’s main argument is that surveillance capitalism poses an existential threat to democracy and human nature as it subordinates people to ever more pervasive forms of social control and “instrumentarian power.”
Zuboff does a masterful job laying bare the hidden laws of motion that structure the workings of surveillance capitalism. She has opened our eyes to what many of us perhaps already intuited but didn’t have a technical language to describe.
But her book is a general study, from a bird's eye view, based on interviews and analyzing documents and texts. What we need now, she writes, are "detailed ethnographic accounts of the way that surveillance capitalism is lived, felt, experienced and, we hope, even resisted by those it seeks to dominate".
This includes also studies of corporate culture in the Silicon Valley:
What kind of ethos permeates institutions such as Singularity University or the MIT Media Lab, where according to Zuboff “some of surveillance capitalism’s most valuable capabilities and applications, from data mining to wearable technologies, were invented” (206)?
To pursue such questions is not just to push the envelope of ethnographic curiosities. It is also to align oneself with a valuable theoretical perspective. For as anthropologists have long demonstrated, the (re)production of power, whether it be elite power or labor power, is very much a matter of culture.
Even though the machinations of surveillance capitalism seem to suggest a world where people are increasingly subordinated to the workings of algorithms, computer science and big data, at the end of the day, as Zuboff herself emphasizes, what allows surveillance capitalism to achieve such dominance in society is not the technology per se but rather the people who decide toward what ends it should be used.
I suppose, she thinks of studies as the one I wrote about two weeks ago:
Personally, I would find following questions also interesting to study:
Why do people continue using products that are spying on them? What keeps people from using privacy friendly alternatives? Jitsi instead of Zoom for example? Linux instead of Windows? Signal instead of Whatsapp? Libre Office instead of Microsoft Word?
The problem with many privacy-friendly alternatives, in my experience, is that they tend to be viewed as "geeky" and not very user-friendly. Here it would be intersting to look at the process of software development itself and the relations between developers and users: Design anthropology has made lots of products more user-friendly