29 January 2019
In her groundbreaking new work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power Shoshana Zuboff exposes the corporations that are fighting to predict and control our online activity – and our lives.
Tech companies gather our information online and sell it to the highest bidder, whether government or retailer. Profits now depend not only on predicting our behaviour but modifying it too. How will this fusion of capitalism and the digital shape our values and define our future?
Read an extract below
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II. Requiem for a Home
In 2000 a group of computer scientists and engineers at Georgia Tech collaborated on a project called the “Aware Home.” It was meant to be a “living laboratory” for the study of “ubiquitous computing.” They imagined a “human- home symbiosis” in which many animate and inanimate processes would be captured by an elaborate network of “context aware sensors” embedded in the house and by wearable computers worn by the home’s occupants. The design called for an “automated wireless collaboration” between the platform that hosted personal information from the occupants’ wearables and a second one that hosted the environmental information from the sensors.
There were three working assumptions: first, the scientists and engineers understood that the new data systems would produce an entirely new knowledge domain. Second, it was assumed that the rights to that new knowledge and the power to use it to improve one’s life would belong exclusively to the people who live in the house. Third, the team assumed that for all of its digital wizardry, the Aware Home would take its place as a modern incarnation of the ancient conventions that understand “home” as the private sanctuary of those who dwell within its walls.
All of this was expressed in the engineering plan. It emphasized trust, simplicity, the sovereignty of the individual, and the inviolability of the home as a private domain. The Aware Home information system was imagined as a simple “closed loop” with only two nodes and controlled entirely by the home’s occupants. Because the house would be “constantly monitoring the occupants’ whereabouts and activities . . . even tracing its inhabitants’ medical conditions,” the team concluded, “there is a clear need to give the occupants knowledge and control of the distribution of this information.” All the information was to be stored on the occupants’ wearable computers “to insure the privacy of an individual’s information.”
By 2018, the global “smart- home” market was valued at $36 billion and expected to reach $151 billion by 2023.5 The numbers betray an earthquake beneath their surface. Consider just one smart- home device: the Nest thermostat, which was made by a company that was owned by Alphabet, the Google holding company, and then merged with Google in 2018.6 The Nest thermostat does many things imagined in the Aware Home. It collects data about its uses and environment. It uses motion sensors and computation to “learn” the behaviors of a home’s inhabitants. Nest’s apps can gather data from other connected products such as cars, ovens, fitness trackers, and beds.7 Such systems can, for example, trigger lights if an anomalous motion is detected, signal video and audio recording, and even send notifications to homeowners or others. As a result of the merger with Google, the thermostat, like other Nest products, will be built with Google’s artificial intelligence capabilities, including its personal digital “assistant.”8 Like the Aware Home, the thermostat and its brethren devices create immense new stores of knowledge and therefore new power— but for whom?
Should the customer refuse to agree to Nest’s stipulations, the terms of service indicate that the functionality and security of the thermostat will be deeply compromised, no longer supported by the necessary updates meant to ensure its reliability and safety. The consequences can range from frozen pipes to failed smoke alarms to an easily hacked internal home system.
By 2018, the assumptions of the Aware Home were gone with the wind. Where did they go? What was that wind? The Aware Home, like many other visionary projects, imagined a digital future that empowers individuals to lead more- effective lives. What is most critical is that in the year 2000 this vision naturally assumed an unwavering commitment to the privacy of individual experience. Should an individual choose to render her experience digitally, then she would exercise exclusive rights to the knowledge garnered from such data, as well as exclusive rights to decide how such knowledge might be put to use. Today these rights to privacy, knowledge, and application have been usurped by a bold market venture powered by unilateral claims to others’ experience and the knowledge that flows from it. What does this sea change mean for us, for our children, for our democracies, and for the very possibility of a human future in a digital world? This book aims to answer these questions. It is about the darkening of the digital dream and its rapid mutation into a voracious and utterly novel commercial project that I call surveillance capitalism.