One Nation Under Surveillance, Our Corporate Overlords, Tech and Society

Consuming Surveillance

Our consumption habits are the root cause of pervasive surveillance, the erosion of democracy, and the threat of environmental disaster. It is the main culprit driving the digital invasion that seeks to gather data about every aspect of our lives, from our browsing habits to our heartbeats. How is this so? Let me break it down. First, consider that the biggest source of surveillance for most (not all) people is advertising. All that logging, tracking, and predicting going on through the use of seemingly every device and at every transaction is designed to hone micro-targeted advertising and other forms of precision marketing. Every search, website visit, every app on your phone, that wearable device measuring your steps and your sleep, the chatty digital assistant that plays your favorite songs and dims your lights, social media (of course), your “cloud,” all these are all sites of persistent and increasing collection of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls our “behavioral surplus.” As we act in the world, the evidence of those actions is gathered up. That is the “surplus” and it contributes to what Zuboff calls a “hidden text” that describes the movements of our lives like a shadow. What is contained in that text is invisible to you and me, but luminous and valuable for others.

The reason for harvesting our behavioral surplus is to sell things – to us and to people we resemble. And not just the things we need, plus a few things we want, but an ever-increasing amount of these things. As it happens, our personal rates of consumption have been steadily increasing for at least a century. So much so, that by the end of the twentieth century, Americans were consuming more than 17 times what they did in 1900, leading us to consume, at present estimates, between one-fifth and one-third of the world’s resources despite having only about one-twentieth of the world’s people.

The United States is not alone. As many formerly low-consumption countries have become wealthier, they have dramatically increasing their consumption as well. This follows a certain logic: An increase in aggregate wealth provides the incentive for businesses to provide goods and services in what free-market fans would term a “virtuous cycle,” where profitable production creates the financial capital to pay higher wages which leads to more disposable income and demand for more goods and services. This apparent lifting of all boats might be fine if there were infinite resources to use as raw materials and as fuel for transportation and production, but there are not. Industrial growth has decimated the planet; depleting its resources, polluting the water and air, and just generally leading us to ecological disaster. And yet, we carry on as if this were not the case. The boats are indeed lifting, but only because of the runoff from melting glaciers.

But how does this lead to surveillance? The phenomenal growth in consumption has been accompanied by a similarly phenomenal growth in consumer choice. In virtually every product category, there could be dozens or even thousands of options. Each producer or service provider really wants your dollar, and they have to fight for it. Advertising is a multi-billion-dollar industry designed to help close this deal and many developments in information technology have been brought to bear as the tools of this particular trade. The development of increasingly invasive and secretive surveillance techniques to capture the minutia of our online and connected lives has been especially useful. As Zuboff tells it, Google pioneered the exploitation of behavioral surplus by employing sophisticated techniques, including artificial intelligence. First, it was to analyze search queries. Search, as we now well know, turned out to be a remarkable wellspring of information about what people think, do, and plan to do. Google’s ingenuity led the company to figure out how to go beyond merely observing our habits to making very good predictions about them. They appear to be working on plans to go further and simply command our choices through manipulating what we see and when we see it, and they are not alone. Just as Google and its parent company Alphabet have developed a wide range of quality online tools and services, from maps to translators, to word processing and data storage systems to keep tabs on us at all times, Facebook has similarly figured out how to keep us glued to our screens as a (last) means of maintaining social ties while also harvesting, and then trafficking in our behavioral surplus.

It is no coincidence that the rise in consumer surveillance has been accompanied by new and troubling forms of state surveillance. It makes sense really. Technology companies, having discovered how to write the hidden text of our lives, found a willing customer for that text in our increasingly paranoid governments. Most of the surveillance technology used by local law enforcement is bought off-the-shelf from commercial firms large and small, including Amazon. The company built to service our every consumptive whim and need, has expanded well beyond its retail position to sell all manner of surveillance equipment. In particular, the company is actively trying to corner the market in selling facial recognition systems to federal agencies, who are enthusiastic buyers. Meanwhile, recordings picked up by Alexa have found their way into criminal trials, demonstrating the effective demolition of the public/private divide through always-on, connected home devices, especially those standing by to take your retail orders. The phones we carry, the smart appliances in our homes, the vehicles we ride in, all these and more offer up the details of our lives to any buyer, public or private. Quaint concepts like search warrants and the expectation of privacy just wither away while we buy buy buy. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement has been contracting with Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants for technical services for decades. All of these companies are banking on both the commercial and governmental business opportunities made possible by the stuff they specialize in: machine learning, facial recognition, data analytics, and so on. The techniques they designed to target advertising are easily converted to techniques for even darker forms of targeting. Predicting what you’ll buy is not all that different from predicting what else you’ll do and oh-so many people want to know.

None of this is your fault of course. There are economic and social forces well beyond our individual control that have created the retail-surveillance state we now find ourselves in. What is true is that you, me, and everyone we know, were easy marks. We like want things. We crave convenience, efficiency, services, systems, tools – anything to impose order on a demanding world. Our lives are busy and our social connections have gone digital. Our health is concerning, so we track our fitness. Stores are a hassle and they’re disappearing anyway, so we shop online. There are too many movies to choose from so we let Netlflix choose. And of course, only the bravest or most stubborn among us can live without a smartphone. As we appear to gain a little space, a little human contact, a little leisure, we also lose – our privacy, our agency, and our planet. We live our life stories tucked into the bosom of our technological affordances and retail pleasures. Yet, the story of our lives only seems to be written by ourselves. The rest of the story is a second text, a hidden text.


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