“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”,
by Shoshana Zuboff, Public Affairs, (Jan. 2019)
“Don’t Be Evil”,
by Rana Foroohar, Currency (Nov. 2019)
©Hazel Henderson 2019
At last we are witnessing the global movements emerging with all kinds of long-awaited critiques and protests against the worldwide colonization of societies, economies and our lives by the information technologies of the digital revolution. For decades, these internet-based technologies and companies’ have been widely accepted by people, lauded as advances in convenience, efficiency and progress or simply accepted as inevitable. Stock markets rode to new heights on the backs of the new startups, “unicorns” and growing scope of social media, with the FAANGs becoming ever larger percentages of the portfolios of mutual funds, ETFs, Indexes 401ks and in pension funds. Political parties embraced these corporations and their marketing tools to win elections.
Happily, there are signs of a wake up from denial of the downsides of this worldwide digital revolution. Today we recognize how widespread reliance on internet-based platforms has created a host of new vulnerabilities from cyber-crime and information warfare, as detailed by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake in “The Fifth Domain” (2019). Additional concerns over propaganda, disinformation, job losses, de-skilling, psychological exploitation, threats to personal privacy and freedom, are described in “The Future of Democracy Challenged in the Digital Age”, (2018).
The new awakening has been led by concerned insiders, whistleblowers, consultants, data scientists and even venture investors. Notable critiques emerged: Jaron Lanier, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” (2017), Cathy O’Neal, “Weapons of Math Destruction” (2017), Roger McNamee, “Zucked” (2019), Amy Webb, “The Big Nine” (2019), Brad Smith and Carol Browne, “Tools and Weapons” (2019). Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook became a critic, along with former Google coder, Tristan Harris, following NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden and others. Political pushback began in Europe with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016 curbing social media giants, with US lawmakers following with debates and hearings but little action.
Now two books lead in the deeper analyses needed to create the much more fundamental understanding societies need to bring this lawless digital revolution under public scrutiny. Such deep reassessment should underpin regulation for protecting the public interest and innate future choices.
Pre-eminent is the all-encompassing overview of Prof. Shoshana Zuboff in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for A Human Future at The New Frontier of Power” (2019), rightly hailed by many experts as a masterpiece. Zuboff begins with an 8-point definition of “Surveillance Capitalism”, in the forward, including these key points:
- A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales.
- A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification.
- A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge and power unprecedented in human history.
- The foundational framework of a surveillance economy.
- As significant a threat to human nature in the 21st century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the 19th & 20.
- An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the peoples’ sovereignty.
Zuboff traces the evolution of this digital revolution as a professor at the Harvard Business School, with her deep understanding of market forces and technological trends. This insider knowledge underlies the authenticity of Zuboff’s account of how Silicon Valley firms evolved from their early democratic idealism to their focus on money and power. She tracks their transition into techno-utopian libertarianism as their companies grew into the monopolistic giants: Facebook. Amazon, Alphabet, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix along with Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and others in China. Zuboff shares inside knowledge and records how she witnessed the many ways these young companies slid down the slippery slopes of greed, as they assumed the goals of venture capital, Wall Street and shareholder demands. Today even 183 CEOs of the Business Roundtable now acknowledge that shareholders must share returns with other stakeholders. Zuboff’s firsthand experience interacting with these still-unregulated companies is accompanied by her deep analysis of the history of the Enlightenment and the early Industrial Revolution.
This book will become a touchstone for the rapidly-evolving critiques and scholarship on the proliferating social consequences of this global digital revolution. Zuboff looks deeper into the future and all the choices human societies must make to tame these technologies to serve our common future. While this brief review of Zuboff’s book cannot do justice to the sweep of her erudition, it simply flags this book as must-reading in business, finance academia and among activists, citizens and their reform movements.
An equally valuable contemporaneous analysis of this same global digital revolution is that by Rana Foroohar, business columnist and associate editor of the Financial Times, author of “Don’t Be Evil, How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles-And All of Us” (2019). Foroohar turns her expert eye on the predations of social media, psychographically-targeted marketing, selling of personal information, big data surveillance, biased algorithms and all the social pathologies they create in today’s economies and societies. Foroohar’s concern was activated by finding that her 10-year-old son had become addicted to a video game, when she discovered an enormous bill for his iPhone. This book surveys the digital landscape and its disruption of so many industries, while offering practical advice for digital users and those seeking fairness in the gig economy. From her London base she explores the political strategies in the EU and the USA for bringing these monopolistic giants into accountability, legally and in the public interest.
Foroohar surveys the many proposals for this necessary accountability, including the anti-trust approaches in the US Congress and proposals to regulate these companies as public utilities. She covers social media companies’ lobbying against all efforts to remove their exemption from FCC media regulation under Section 320 legal shield of the 1996 Communications Act. This Section 320 protects them as mere “technology platforms” from revealing sponsorship of political ads, rules governing accuracy, editing and verification of content required of all media companies. Today, even CEOs including Salesforce’s Marc Benioff agree that “Section 320 should be abolished”, (Fortune.com Dec. 2019). Current battles seeking to define ownership of users’ personal information are described, and other proposals to require user-reimbursement for companies’ monetizing personal data for profit and sale. Other proposals are examined along with new business models not based on advertising, such as municipally owned and subscription-based social media services. This book is must reading for all concerned citizen and investors.
Hazel Henderson , author of The Politics of the Solar Age and many other books , is CEO of Ethical Markets Media Certified B. Corporation www.ethicalmarkets.com, publishers of the Green Transition Scoreboard and producers of the TV series “Transforming Finance“ distributed globally at www.films.com.