We The Raw Material

A recent article in the Guardian began with a paragraph that struck me as incredibly important, not just as an introduction to the subject-matter of the article (Surveillance Capitalism) but as an explanation for our tribalized and angry age.

We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrateour conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.

Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.

These paragraphs were a lead-in to a description of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, in which she describes “Surveillance Capitalism.” Zuboff is a Harvard Business School professor, and her basic insight is that the changes being made are less about the nature of digital technology and more about a “new mutant form of capitalism” that uses tech for its purposes.

It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.

“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”

The essential point being made is that we live in an era of both state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart, in which digital technology is separating people into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched–the “raw material.” We can limit state surveillance through the law, but at this point, there is no law restraining the use of our data by Facebook, Google, et al.

This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power.

I have no way of evaluating either the accuracy or the imminence of this threat. And that brings me back to the article’s opening paragraph. We are living in a time of profound change, and anyone who says they know where that change is taking us is smoking something very strong.

We are “raw material” in so many ways…..


  1. As I prepare to go downtown today in the -6 weather,
    the thought that scares me the most is knowing that our enemies can turn the power grid OFF by remote control. The Banking system can be taken down too.
    While Komrade Orange waits to go to jail, we are NOT doing enough to prevent the lights going out.

  2. It is true that the US has no laws restraining the gathering or use of the data that Facebook or Google gather. However, the countries in Europe definitely do have laws that restrain them and have levied huge fines on both Facebook and Google.

    European governments appear to be much more concerned about the privacy and well being of their citizens than ours does. Our country has been taken over by plutocrats or oligarchs or authoritarians (whatever term you prefer) and is much more concerned that those with power and wealth can continue to gain more power and wealth. This administration has been doing everything that it can to speed up that process.

    European countries care about their citizens by providing some type of universal health insurance, protecting their privacy, andmaking sure that corporate CEOs do not earn hundreds of times the pay that the employees earn.

  3. The general population of the United States has traded its privacy for security, shopper’s cards at major retailers, and “banking” conveniences. We did this knowingly starting decades ago. Now, some want to blame the government and the oligarchs, yet we will do nothing to put controls on the internet system because we do not want to give up those perceived advantages that we all believe we cannot live without.
    Oh humans! How we deceive ourselves.

  4. To be a bit pendantic, “oligarchy” is a broad category including theocracy, aristocracy, and plutocracy. I think we are currently in some wierd combination of kakistocracy (inside the government) in the interests of plutocratic neo-feudalists (outside the government). Bonus points for regions infested with theocrats.

  5. I use E-mail to communicate; not as frequent (except for political newsletters) as previous years due to most friends now posting public comments on Facebook or its Messenger service. I prefer E-mails; used to be able to contact local newscasters via their E-mail addresses but now they use Twitter, I do not Tweet. Isn’t that form of communication in this computer age much easier to hack and to receive messages from unsolicited sources, is there a way to limit who your Tweets reach or is it an open-ended communication? I know nothing about it other than Trump’s frequent infamous hourly, or less, Tweets.

    “The essential point being made is that we live in an era of both state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart, in which digital technology is separating people into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched–the “raw material.” We can limit state surveillance through the law, but at this point, there is no law restraining the use of our data by Facebook, Google, et al.”

    Is our current mode of communication moving back to the 1940’s when, those of us fortunate enough to have land line phones, had party line systems, each party with their personal “ring”. We could answer our phone “ring” while visiting a neighbor but it provided limited surveillance for neighbors to listen to our personal conversations. Primitive hacking before that term came into being; limited but sometimes interesting information could be learned…of course, that worked both ways.

  6. I remember watching a BBC interview with an economist who laughed when discussing the USA as a democracy with capitalism as its economic engine. He mentioned our political system allows for bribing public officials. In most democratized societies, bribing a public official is illegal and will suffer lengthy jail sentences. In the USA, the highest bribe wins the politico.

    As for the deep dive into our Surveillance State, we open our arms to the watchers because we’re told in the “privacy settings” that the company uses our data to shape “the user experience”.

    Boomers did not grow up in this environment where Smartphones have become “wearable” technology. Even my Fitbit can be used to track my exact location because of built-in GPS.

    Thanks to the whistleblowers during the Obama regime, we learned the military was using Smartphones to pinpoint drone attacks.

    As for Facebook, Matt Damon made a statement in his last Jason Bourne movie by showing how a young Founder of a social media giant was being manipulated by the CIA Director. When the Founder refused to open a back door for the CIA, and sided with customer privacy, he became a target for a CIA asset.

    The majority of Boomers don’t grasp the debate over privacy. And as for where this is going, as the marches and revolution continue growing, the organizers will become targets as well. There are plenty of surveillance options available to local and state police to navigate the internet and extract much-needed intel.

    In an Oligarchy, “national security” means protecting the safety of our Oligarchs. 😉

    p.s. Don’t let ‘Google Home’ into your home.

  7. Predicting the long term future of our advancing disruptive technology with any accuracy is extraordinarily difficult. But it’s fun to try. The problem is every time I attempt this, the most likely scenarios are overwhelmingly dystopian.

    I start with the belief that Human beings are naturally selfish, short-sighted and disposed to forming into tribes and discounting the humanity of those outside thelr tribe. They then use all available tools to give their tribe the upper hand. It seems to me that the whole of human history gives validity to this view.

    From this what is the most likely path for humanity if we do not wipe ourselves out in one of a variety of ways over the next 100 years? The rich and powerful are likely to use CRISPR and othe advancing biogenetic technologies to become a different species altogether. The masses will become valued only for their consumption while our superior overlords will use all available technology to manipulate and control us. Heck, we might even be happier in this possible future but you can throw the self-evident truths in our constitution out the window and with it free will.

    This all started when we invented an advanced counting machine called a computer.

    Happy Thursday morning!!

  8. Warren,

    “To be a bit pedantic, “oligarchy” is a broad category including theocracy, aristocracy, and plutocracy.”

    You must be a carpenter. You hit the nail squarely on the head.

    To be more specific, THEOCRACY was represented by the HUNT FAMILY until it was hijacked, a few years ago, by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

    ARISTOCRACY has long been represented by the BUSH FAMILY.

    And finally, PLUTOCRACY is now represented by the KOCH FAMILY.

    ROBERT STRAUSS, the super fixer, at one time or another, represented all three of the above.

    It’s a DOMESTIC AXIS OF EVIL That’s why the Republican Party hasn’t stopped the DEVIANT MONSTER, up until now. They’re afraid to break it up. To do so would, more than likely, cause a “political cascade.”

  9. And of course – that is what has also produced a couple of generations of tube-idiots … take away the input and they are lost. You don’t need to think – someone did that for you see what they say about it!… you don’t need to learn to draw… there is clipart. Why have a library – you can read it online! Oh, by the way you may wonder – what happened to all the fuss about ‘SPAM’… trust me that one is over your head… Ah… for the days of Gopher and the Well…
    Once DARPA loosed its leash on the web – it was all over but the screaming.

  10. DONALD TRUMP is an unexpected WEAK LINK in the DOMESTIC AXIS OF EVIL. As I have said more than once, he is “SANTA CLAUS.” Unfortunately, I seem to be the only one contributing to this blog, who still believes in him.

  11. Ditto > Nancy & Robert. We don’t know where we are headed but we know we are headed somewhere different than before, and the menu of possible “somewheres” presents terrifying choices our overlords may choose to take us for their own and not our benefit, assuming that capitalism itself survives such changes and doesn’t fall into some socioeconomic system that hasn’t itself been invented yet. We talk of change as though it is a future happening when it is happening right now and at an accelerating pace, but our attention is diverted by the raw politics of the day what with a child in the Oval Office and libertarian economics supported by bribes to our legislators at both state and federal levels.

    As I see it, our only hope is for government (and not a bought and paid for one) to intervene in accommodating such fearsome changes in the public interest and not in the interest (as now) of the super rich, changes that may make current AOC/Bernie chatter seem right wing. Given both the substantive and pace of change, it may require a new paradigm for descriptive wording, neither socialism nor capitalism, but some ism that itself has not yet been invented. Perhaps our only hope (while such an opportunity is still available) is at the polls. We have far more serious problems seeking solution than silly quarrels over walls, shareholder value and other such topics, and wasting our precious time and resources which could better be employed in working on current and prospective issues in a sea of change will be historically unforgivable, assuming that we will have a history in this atomic age.

    Far out thinking? Yes, but necessary, because who in 1495 (when Columbus was plotting a return to the New World) would have guessed that computers would someday be in vogue, or that fifty years from now our successors (if any) will marvel at the primitive means of communication we employ today? The nature of change itself is changing, and how and how fast we accommodate ourselves to such change both present and ongoing should command our attention over the mundane grievances of the day.

  12. Another relevant book on this subject is “Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States” by Michael Lind of the New America Foundation. His thesis, while focusing soley on US history, is that there have always been major technological advancements, such as the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, computerization, and now artificial intelligence that displace people from jobs, create jobs that require new skills, and otherwise disrupt the economy which leads to social, cultural and political change.

    I am however, optimistic. Since the 60s, we have been in a conservative era that brought us lax regulations, flatter taxes and economic inequality as great as that we experienced in the Gilded Age. It’s obvious to me, that we’ve allowed the wealthy and large corporations way too much control over our lives. Billionaires so entitled that they are threatened by a charismatic 29-year old, Congresswoman suggestsing that annial income over $10M be taxed at a marginal rate of 70%. To put AOC’s proposal into historical perspective, during the mid-40s to the early 60s, the top marginal tax rate on an annual income of $200,000 ranged from 90-94%. Even with inflation, an annual income of $200,000 doesn’t begin to come close to $10M.

    I can’t help but feel hopeful that we are headed back to a more sensible governmental regime, where community is once again relevant, taxes are based on an ability to pay and are adequate to provide assistance to those in need, not just those with greed and regulations are once again imposed to protect us from the damage being done by winner take all focused capitalism.

  13. Keep these two statements in mind: “And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening.” And “…we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.”

    And then consider this statement informing what data about us is used for: it is “…fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.”

    It seems to me that the last is the solution to the first. If we want to know where all this is heading, feed that data into machine intelligence, read the prediction products and we shall know what will happen now, soon and later.

    But critics claim that prediction products can’t be trusted to be accurate. If so, and if what we fear is that prediction products will predict our behavior, then we are afraid of something that is wrong so often that it cannot be a threat.

    In reference to the watchers and the watched, I suggest we have the situation reversed. There are likely 100 times, perhaps 1000 times, as many devices (phone-cameras, recording devices) in the hands of the masses (whom this article calls the watched) watching government and corporations than government and corporations have watching the masses. The book “1984” had its prediction of the future ass-backwards then and we still have it backwards now.

    But then, we must fear something.

    The longer the world goes without a major war the more the world must create imaginary boogeymen to fear.

  14. “The masses will become valued only for their consumption while our superior overlords will use all available technology to manipulate and control us.”

    George W. told us to go buy more stuff to support the economic recovery. We seem to be valued for our consumptive abilities right now as we are also subject to major media, concentrated more and more into fewer hands, feeding us propaganda minute by minute.

    Trying to fight back against the accumulation of personal information and its sale to others, despite our objections defines our credit reporting system of 3 mega corporations who glean our personal financial data then sell it to companies who use it for marketing and financial decisions. If there are errors in the data retrieved, or even more damaging, data is assigned the the wrong person, it may take years to correct, if ever. Personal experience has proven that, despite providing “proof” as demanded for making corrections, those corrects not only are not done but incorrect data continues being assigned. That in turn is sold to collection agencies and law firms for continued harassment. When challenged repeatedly, the company call center employee admitted that they were unlikely to make any changes as it costs more than leaving it as is.
    Bottom line (no pun intended) is that we are monetized for data and consumptive behavior by those who care nothing about us as human beings with hopes, aspirations and free will. Power does indeed corrupt absolutely.

  15. It is a bit amazing in a way. At least in the old days if some Organ of State Security wanted to track your movements via a “Bug” or “tap” your phone, you needed a court order to do so. Now Corporate AmeriKa can do that very same thing legally.

    This is not a surprising result. Between Congressional dimwits and the Corporations over All group excesses by Corporate AmeriKa will not be questioned.

  16. As if our teeter-totter capitalism need any more disruptive challenges. Today’s top capitalists know more about buying a congressman than about sophisticated management techniques. Their outstanding skill is the ability to pull off any act of business depravity while avoiding accountability (ask the recently retired CEO of Wells-Fargo). An economy that depends on keeping working peoples’ wages as low as possible may not be worth rescuing. Is there anything sillier than quarterly measurement of CEO performance? Is there anything more crass than making stock prices and dividend increases the sole criteria of business success? Is there anything more character revealing than focusing on GDP while ignoring the erosion of fair treatment of the workforce?

    No system that works for only a small numbers of its users can survive. Lacking economic justice, how can we lay claim to political or social justice? When fatuous fools become billionaires how does that justify continuation of a corrupt system? When the free market is almost totally shackled, how can we say our system bears any resemblance to free-market capitalism? When common business practices ignore the problem of pollution and deny that the planet is becoming uninhabitable, do they deserve our support?

    Endless growth in a finite, overcrowded planet is a core assumption of capitalism. When that assumption becomes obsolete, how is the system going to save itself? The transformation in the information environment drives a transformation in our business environment and in the nature of capitalism. These are existential issues.

  17. It seems to me that we are, if we are smart enough, on the verge of a revolutionary life style and culture that finally is sustainable. I wonder though if we are collectively smart enough to get there?

    With computers and automation and free of unrestrained consumption we ought to be able to get back to full time parenting, 40 hour weeks, more equitable wealth distribution, health care for everyone, you know, like things used to be when we were young.

    Are we smart enough to plan the transition? Maybe not.

  18. Pete the dreamer…you can “plan” the transition all you want, about as effective as marching. It is all about voting for servant leaders, one at a time.

  19. working class person, wakes up, looks at his i phone for messages, possible from working assoc,boss,significat others, uses microwave to cook breakfast, drives his car to the convenience store,purchases 5 hour stuff and energy drinks. drives through so called rish hour, working his i phone and gas peddle. gets to work,downs said energy drinks, and adds a little more extra to his job,lunch, speeds to the fast food,inhales food,returns to work at 2 MPG. (mile per gallon).. resets job tasks, slurps the 5 hour vitamin. clocks out, into rush hour,works i phone and gas peddle with superlitives in high gear, hits convience store for more energy drinks. come home,cooks microwave friendly entre,answers messages,and then netflicks,dies in recliner,,,, repeat…seems were paying to work for someone,as we merrily grow old,faster. and were paying our boss, to work for them.actully,its been this way for decades,sans the energy drink industry,back then we used coke and speed. out of our pockets of course. repeat. still dying to go to work? take a look at the energy drink side of that cooler sometime,its as big as beer,or sodas. and then watch who buys them, if it wasnt a scam,or social medias way of life,to achive unparralle exhaustion,for your lifestyle. too fast buddy,maybe we need a warning label on life,,,, ” my job should pay enough to enjoy life””best wishes..

  20. Lester, Bobby Kennedy said “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”

  21. Amazon uses data from companies it services to create products and compete with them and destroy some if them. They work with Facebook and use its data to gauge what you think of them too. Amazon is a monopoly whether they want to be called that and the data it uses gains them huge market shares

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