Notes | How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism

Posted on Oct 24, 2021


How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism is a book length response to Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Doctorow agrees that we face difficult challenges regarding technology and capitalism, but fears her diagnosis of the problem will lead us down an incorrect path.

Zuboff notes that everything that Big Tech says about itself is probably a lie, but Doctorow points out that she makes one exception: the stated efficacy of Big Tech products. He asks: is it possible that instead of them having products that persuade people to buy things, Big Tech instead has a monopoly over both communications and commerce?

Using a materialist analysis, Doctorow goes on to explore why these monopolies persist and what to do about them. He suggests our primary choices are to either regulate them in such a way that only giant companies could possibly comply or return to an era of robust antitrust.

Quotes and Observations

“What if it’s the material circumstances, and not the arguments, that are making the difference for these conspiracy pitchmen? What if the traum of living through real conspiracies all around us – conspiracies among wealthy people, their lobbyists and lawmakers to bury inconvenient facts and evidence of wrongdoing (these conspiracies are commonly known as “corruption”)– is making people vulnerable to conspiracy theories?” (4)

“Figuring out what we want our tech to look like is crucial if we’re going to get out of this mess. Today, we’re at a crossroads where we’re trying to figure out if we want to fix the Big Tech companies that dominate our internet or if we want to fix the internet itself by unshackling it from Big Tech’s stranglehold. We can’t do both, so we have to choose.” (5)

“The fear of surveillance capitalism starts from the (correct) presumption that everything Big Tech says about itself is probably a lie. But the surveillance capitalism critique makes an exception for the claims Big Tech makes in its sales literature–the breathless hype in the pitches to potential advertisers online and in ad-tech seminars about the efficacy of its products: It assumes that Big Tech is as good at influencing us as they claim they are when they’re selling influencing products to credulous customers. That’s a mistake because sales literature is not a reliable indicator of a product’s efficacy.” (11)

Segmenting (13) When you can split people into groups that are already likely to agree with you, you may be able to get them to agree with you, but this is not persuasion, and it’s certainly not mind control. The following quote might be one of the better explanations that explains the prominence of crypto.

Domination (17)

“Surveillance capitalism also abets fraud by making it easy to locate other people who have been similarly deceived, forming a community of people who reinforce one another’s false beliefs. Think of the forums in which people who are being victimized by multilevel marketing frauds gather to trade tips on how to improve their luck in peddling the product.” (16)

“One example of how monopolism aids in persuasion is through dominance: Google makes editorial decisions about its algorithms that determine the sort order of the responses to our queries. If a cabal of fraudsters have set out ot trick the world into thinking that the Brooklyn Bridge is 5,800 feet long, and if Google gives a high search rank to this group in response to queries like “How long is the Brooklyn Bridge?” then the first 8 or 10 screens’ worth of Google results could be wrong.” He goes on to not that since few people look beyond the first page of results, many people will end up being deceived. Humans adapt to manipulation and while some of us are pathologically susceptible to this form of manipulation, most of us aren’t. Doctorow argues that we should be spending time and energy protecting those who are susceptible, but this manipulation is a problem to be dealt with and not the existential threat that Zuboff believes it to be. (22)

“These layers of indirection between advertisers and publishers serve as moral buffers: Today’s moral consensus is largely that publishers shouldn’t be held responsible for the ads that appear on their pages because they’re not actively choosing to put those ads there. Because of this, Nazis are able to overcome significant barriers to organizing their movement.” (27)

He makes the argument that “Facebook alone” as a Big Tech company has built their model on locking in their users and not letting them leave. (30)

I would argue that Apple’s products have done the same, and there’s even leaked correspondence from Apple citing iMessage as a way to keep users locked in.

To create “organic traffic” Facebook must insert incendiary content to gin up controversy to show activity on the platform, to better sell ads (34). Facebook doesn’t get you to click an ad by predicting what you want, but by keeping you on its products for so long that eventually something sticks (35).

“For example, Section 1201’s first major application was on DVD players as a means of enforcing the region coding built into those devices. DVD-CCA, the body that standardized DVDs and DVD players, divided the world into six regions and specified that DVD players must check each disc to determine which regions it was authorized to be played in. DVD players would have their own corresponding region (a DVD player bought in the United States would be region 1 while one bought in India would be region 5). If the player and the disc’s region matched the player would play the disc; otherwise it would reject it.”

Copyright locks are more concerning that influence campaigns because instead of coercing you to use specific products, you can be forced to see: Apple’s ecosystem (41).

“Google’s search dominance isn’t a matter of pure merit: The company has leveraged many tactics that would have been prohibited under classical, pre-Ronald Reagan antitrust enforcement standards to attain its dominance. After all, this is a company that has developed two major products: a really good search engine and a pretty good Hotmail clone. Every other major success it’s had – Android, YouTube, Google Maps, etc. – has come through an acquisition of a nascent competitor. Many of the company’s key divisions, such as the advertising technology of DoubleClick, violate the historical antitrust principle of structural separation, which forbade firms from owning subsidiaries that competed with their customers. Railroads, for example, were barred from owning freight companies that competed with the shippers who freight they carried.” (44)

“If one in a million people is a terrorist, then there will only be about one terrorist in a random sample of one million people. If your test for detecting terrorist is 99% accurate, it will identify 10,000 terrorists in your million-person sample (1% of a one million is 10,000). For every true positive, you’ll get 9,999 false positives. ” (69)

Doctorow agrees with Zuboff on the merits of being unobserved, and notes that where the work excels.

“A private realm is necessary for human progress.” (76)

Retained data is a liability. Leaks aren’t a matter of if, but when.

Interoperability and adversarial interoperability (91 - 93)

“Giving people ownership titles to integers is obviously a terrible idea.” (108)

The quote on integers is on the context of Facebook gathering everyone’s phone numbers, but there are other realms of applicability within our online existence. It’s important to create technology alternatives outside big tech as a persuasion effort to remind people of what is possible.

“It’s always easier to convince people that something must be done to save a thing they love than it is to excite them about something that doesn’t even exist yet.” (29)

“ecology” and uniting conservationists

Private surveillance and state surveillance go hand in hand. Doctorow thinks that tech poses an existential threat to our society and species but because of monopoly, not because of the intrinsic power of tech. Doctorow argues that surveillance still matters, just that our concerns should center on breaking up monopolies. Zooms out and looks at the other things going on in society. Lack of regulations, lobbying efforts to convince us of other things.

Further Reading

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, First edition. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019).

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