An interview earlier this week between Recode’s Kara Swisher and Harvard professor and author Shoshana Zuboff is a must listen for anyone seeking to understand the “attention economy” and its threat to democratic society as we know it.
It’s spawned what Zuboff has dubbed “surveillance capitalism” — a system that’s created massive disparities of power and wealth between those who control it and those upon whom it feeds.
“It’s almost like we woke up and suddenly the internet was owned and operated by private capital under a kind of regime, a new economic logic that really was not well understood,” she tells Swisher.
Surveillance capitalism has foreclosed on the promise of a connected world and put something far more sinister in its place. “Our hopes and dreams for the digital future, our sense of empowering and democratizing the digital future, this dream is slipping away,” Zuboff explains, hijacked by an economic model that is taking over our lives both online and off.
Zuboff traces surveillance capitalism’s inception to a “moment of emergency” in Silicon Valley after the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000. To respond to the emergency Google decided to “suspend its principles.” It combined the company’s user-search data logs with their leading-edge computational capabilities and used the result to predict human behavior online and off.
This information was then sold to advertisers, which in a relatively short time transformed the advertising marketplace to one that traded on predictive human futures. The companies that had collected the most data on our online likes, dislikes, habits and history were the winners. “They spun it into gold,” Swisher says.
“Right now, surveillance capitalists sit on a huge asymmetry of knowledge,” Zuboff says. “They have a concentration of knowledge unlike anything ever seen in human history. We have an institutional disfiguring of these huge asymmetries of knowledge and power which are antithetical to democracy.”