Surveillance Capitalism

What is the thesis of the article?
This article argues that the networked sphere has adopted a new logic that is an iteration from the capitalist logic of accumulation. This new logic accumulates capital
What is the structure of the argument?
The argument in this article conceptualises various interviews with Google chief economist Hal Varian into a theoretical framework to capture how this new logic of accumulation functions.
The new method is achieved through computer mediated transactions. As we have seen with the previous article by Varian, the use cases of computer mediated transactions are the following:
Data extraction
Before we get into these uses cases, and their issues as the author describes, we need to look into some vocabulary the author puts forward that will help us contextualise the rest.
Information Civilisation
Industrial civilisation was shaped by industrialisation, its future depended upon the developments and structures born out of industrialisation.
Information civilisation is the civilisation, in its most broad sense, that will be shaped by digitalisation. It’s our civilisation right now and its future depends upon the developments and structures born out of this digitalisation.
Ok, let’s restrict the scope a bit.
Networked sphere
Within our information civilisation, we have the Networked Sphere. The networked sphere is the distributed and many-to-many flow of information, separate to mass media flows of information.
This is also the scope for the argument here. The argument talks about the new logic that rules the networked sphere and what challenges that poses to our information civilisation.
So, when we discuss the rest of the text, it is relevant to keep in mind that the author talks about the effects of computer mediation in the networked sphere, which is part of our current information civilisation.
Computer Mediation
Computer mediated work has two aspects:
information technology imposes information to the user (through software limits), there are certain things you can and cant do while using IT objects and software,
information technology simultaneously produces information about the agent using such IT objects or software,
IT reflects back at what the work activities that were undertaken were - bring out features. This increases transparency for activities that were originally unknown.
This leads us to the next concept:
This is the ability for information technology to both automate processes and informate about processes.
But what do we get informated about exactly?
Electronic Text
The electronic text is the codification of the work environment - it is the aggregation of information created by computer mediated work.
It is never a thing in itself, as some would argue, but it is always shaped by those who have power (the social) in that context - similarly to a scientific paradigm.
Example: The analytics of any work environment that employees use are determined by and shown only to the executives in power.
This results in asymmetrical power due to asymmetrical information. Those in power are those that get computer mediated work to informate them about processes.
Ok, so people do computer mediated work which creates electronic text that informs about processes. This seems pretty neutral so far. Lets see how the author shows concern.
lets talk about:
Division of Learning
First of all,
Division of labour: was about how industrialisation created a structure that divided who did what at work, using specialisation as a way to inhibit upward work mobility.
Division of learning: is about how digitalisation has created a new structure that dictates who learns (gains knowledge of computer mediated transactions), what and how: phone calls, bathroom breaks, locations, conversations.
This division is dictated by the fact that objects that do the computer mediated work are owned by entities, so those entities seem to be the ones that have control of the electronic text.
Centralising knowledge like this seems bad by default, but why is the division of learning criticised by the author?
Logic of Accumulation
Logic of Accumulation: the term used to describe the logic of a capitalist economy. It delineates the flow of capital through a corporation to one that results in capital accumulation that is greater than initial investment: profits.
The logic is about business processes that accumulate capital.
So, electronic text is given purpose by the logic of accumulation. Electronic text is shaped by the undercurrent of the logic of accumulation.
This results in electronic text being shaped by the logic of accumulation into something that generates capital.
Right, so it is the potential of the accumulation of capital that gives value to electronic text.
Surveillance Capitalism.
Now we understand how electronic text mixed with a capitalist logic of accumulation results in new social structures in our networked sphere aimed at capital accumulation.
Surveillance Capitalism is thus a type of logic of accumulation, one that focuses on centralising power over the production and purpose of electronic text.
Now, we can talk about the social and political significance of electronic text, using Google as a case study. Using text from Google themselves, we see how the logic of accumulation in conjunction with big data has structured our networked sphere to favour the accumulation of capital for those who control computer mediated work.
Data Extraction & Analysis.
Lets expand computer mediated work to computer mediated transactions.
Big data is sourced by computer-mediated transactions of various types.
Computer Mediated:
economic transactions,
flows (from sensors - IoT),
corporate and government databases (banks, taxation offices, health care, credit cards, telecom),
trans-semiotic information (video, photos, cameras, satellites).
important: everydayness data (likes, searches, emails, texts, photos, communication patterns).
Non-market forms of ‘social production’. Capturing small data from individuals computer mediated actions in casual life.
creates Data Exhaust: everydayness data as aggregated, packaged, sold, analysed, abstracted, etc.
Formal Indifference about the content, as long as it is computer mediated (data-able). Quantity not quality.
Extraction means that it is a one-way process with little consent.
Results in structural independence from its population.
No dependance on the masses gives more power to the enterprises.
Formally indifferent in extraction means that data is decontextualised where irrelevant for their aims.
Subjectivities are converted to objects to repurpose the subjective for commodification.
So, Google is formally indifferent to and functionally distant from its population of users and data creators.
Analysis is the first step in how to formalise data processes into revenue creating cycles.
It is clear here how computer mediated transactions are structured using a logic of accumulation.
Surveillance Assets
Data becomes data assets used to create revenue.
Data assets thus create surveillance capital.
This has become the new model for digital corporations:
Find a process that makes data created in the networked sphere into data assets, and turn it into surveillance capital. This is the new model of surveillance capitalism.
Now we have covered how big data works. How does it get worst?
Personalisation and Communication
This is about giving over personal information to technology corporations.
Trust is central to these actions, as privacy becomes key.
Personalisation also leads to digital tools that become socially indispensable.
The personalised experiences create asymmetries of power because users are not willing to give up the social benefits.
This indispensability is furthered by increasing the applications that personalisation can be used for.
Monitoring and Contracts
Computer mediated transactions give new information about behaviour, thus new detailed and refined contracts can be created and monitored prospectively.
I think framing this in terms of prospective and retrospective contracts is quite useful.
Retrospective contracts are what we typically use. A contract is in place, trust is assumed and a breach of the contract can only be observed after it has been breached.
Prospective contracts are what computer mediated transactions and monitoring allow. A contract is in place, trust can be minimised because a breach of the contract cannot be achieved due to the very structure that has been put in place under that contract.
Card payments
Car insurance monitors your behaviour to adjust rates.
Advertiser only pays per view on a digital newspaper.
The un-contract
Strips away governance and the rule of law.
Contracts exist to mitigate the inevitability of uncertainty. Monitoring eliminates uncertainty and thus the need for trust.
It all turns into machine processes.
Could end the section here?
‘Spiritual dimension of power’
‘Material dimension of power’
*Return to this. p.81*
I am actually a bit uncertain as to whether I agree with here that this is negative irrespective of the method of application.
To me it is more interesting about the application of such structures, who puts them in place? If this is a centralised political and architectural effort, then the possibility of misuse is increased.
Big Other
This is the social structure that results from corporations adopting a surveillance logic of accumulation.
The information civilisation turns into a decentralised institutional regime that records, modifies and commodifies everyday experiences to create ways to monetise and profit.
It is the contemporary incarnation of electronic text that aims to know and modify as much as it can.
It aims to reveal the workings of the ‘invisible hand’.
It is inside and outside the human body, producing opportunities for observation, interpretation, prediction and modification of action.
What kind of world does this create and what kind of psychology does it bring about for its inhabitants?
Privacy and Secrecy
Privacy enables the choice:
secrecy or
Surveillance seems to redistribute privacy rights.
People have less privacy, so they don’t have the option of secrecy.
Companies have more privacy, so they have the option to secrecy.
Thus, maintaining privacy rights maintains companies abilities of secrecy.
Privacy accumulation
Accumulate → assets, capital, privacy rights.
Continuous Experiments
From correlation to causality.
continual experimentation on the agents
Allows business opportunities that move from a posteriori analysis to:
prediction and
modification of actual behaviour.
This results in an incentive to modify behaviour toward profit.
Reality Business
Big data analytics now has the capability to alternate individuals behaviour swiftly
From data mining to reality mining.
This feeds into the enterprise mediated determinism of the extended order - removed from its natural uncertain function and toward controlled outcomes.
Adds to the fictions of market dynamics
human life reborn as labor
nature reborn as real estate
exchange reborn as money
reality reborn as behaviour
Offers the possibility to modify behaviour for profit and control. Losing ‘individuals’ to data points.
The capitalist model has adopted a new logic that is an iteration from the traditional capitalist logic of accumulation.
This new iteration accumulates capital by extracting and analysing data into processes that make data a valuable asset.
These processes of analysis use methods of personalisation, monitoring and continuous experiments.
These processes are able to observe, interpret, predict and modify action.
These actions are those that accumulate capital for those who implement such processes.
Questions for the class:
How much removal of trust is too much?
Is the removal/decrease of trust only negative when the trust is removed because of handed over political centralisation?
Are computer mediated transactions problematic only when their output (data) is centralised as secret knowledge?
Essentially, is there a way out if we take power away from corporations? Because the transactions will persist.
What tools do you use to combat the issues raised by this text? How can we improve our impact or knowledge in this area? What tools would you like to advertise to the class?

Accumulation of science happened before the 1500s.
accumulation of capital did not in an economically strategic way. It came from seizing. This is why feudalism worked. No upward mobility.
Accumulation of capital is post 1500s.
It is done in an economically strategic way.
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