“Don’t take my gun, Nightlife!” Tol called, trying to sound not too much concerned, and yet unable to keep the tone of pleading entirely out of his voice. “I’m liable to need it!”
This dialogue begins the real action of Wendell Berry’s “Watch with Me.” Tol Proudfoot, in his garden talking to Sam Hanks, has just observed a mentally unstable Thacker Hample wander by the barn and pick up a loaded gun. Nightlife was upset and unsettled after being denied the opportunity to preach at a revival the night before. Checking that the gun was indeed loaded, he started toward the woods.
“I expect I’ll just ease along with him a ways,” Tol said to Sam. “You go tell Miss Minnie, and then drive over and tell Walter Cotman and Tom and Braymer. Or send word to them if they’re out at work. And then you come with us.”
So the watching begins.
Being watched is increasingly our reality, and one with an entire system growing up around it. “Surveillance capitalism” eludes an easy definition, which we learn before the table of contents of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. In fact, she provides eight definitions, naming surveillance capitalism a new economic order, an economic logic, a mutation of capitalism, a framework for a surveillance economy, a threat to human nature, an origin of power, a movement imposing a new collective order, and an expropriation of certain human rights (viii). Three main parts comprise the book. The first provides the foundations of the concept, the second explains how it advanced in the last two decades, and the third exposes it as an instrumentarian form of power poised to usher in a new form of modernity.
In a sense, it all starts with online companies collecting data so they can use it to improve their products. This realization first creates what Zuboff calls the “behavioral value reinvestment cycle” (70), which basically means behavioral data drives service improvements for users. But companies such as Google soon found their servers clogged with more data than they could use to improve their own functionality. All of the “data exhaust,” the bits of information tangentially related to transactions and activity on the web, wasn’t useless. In fact, this surplus data from consumer behavior could yield great value for prediction and control. “Behavioral surplus” thus emerges as a key concept for surveillance capitalism. (Zuboff provides helpful figures for visualizing these concepts; see pp. 70 and 97.)
Some data could be used to improve an existing product; the rest could be packaged and used in other profitable ways. By extracting this data and analyzing it, prediction becomes both possible and lucrative—lucrative because it can enable the modification of behavior. Basically, the data that is useful for improving the product is used for just that, but the far greater amount of behavioral data is siphoned off into surveillance revenues, markets in predicting future behavior, and prediction products in general. In other words, a bit of the data might be used to improve Gmail. The rest is used to hone advertising algorithms, train AI responses to human queries, and more. As Zuboff puts it, “This new market form declares that serving the genuine needs of people is less lucrative, and therefore less important, than selling predictions of their behavior. Google discovered that we are less valuable than others’ bets on our future behavior. This changed everything” (93; emphasis original).
This drive for more and more information leads to what Zuboff names the “dispossession cycle,” which has four stages: incursion (start getting the data without permission), habituation (wear down resistance to new incursions), adaptation (modify practices as necessary), and redirection (keep pressing forward with the basic project) (138-155). She illustrates with the case of Google’s massive privacy incursions in its quest to map the world with its Street View project. (If the privacy implications of this do not stand out to you, that itself is likely a result of the habituation phase of the dispossession cycle!)
He decided just to follow along, keeping Nightlife in sight as best he could. He would not try to catch up; he would try not to fall too far behind; he would say nothing. And Tol’s decision then established what he and the others would do the rest of that day and into the next. They would let whatever it was run its course, if it would. They would stop Nightlife from using the gun, if they had to and if they were able. At every considerable change of direction, Tol broke a branch end and left it dangling as a mark for Sam. Otherwise, the passage of two men over the dead leaves of the woods’ floor ought to be legible enough.
Surveillance capitalism then doubles down on obtaining, analyzing, and exploiting this information. And like Proverbs’ grave, barren womb, dry earth, and fire, it can never say “enough.” More and more behavior must be “rendered,” or turned into data, so that it can be used to fuel “economies of action,” or behavior modification. To get more data, surveillance capitalism pushes more and more real life activities into the digital realm, whether that is through fitness wearables or home assistant devices. Part of the problem is that these companies then have an amount of information that leads to major disparities in knowledge, authority, and power, which have consequences for how society is ordered and operates (181): “Surveillance capitalists’ acts of digital dispossession impose a new kind of control upon individuals, populations, and whole societies… Such demands are existential threats. They violate the basic mechanisms and laws of motion that produce this market leviathan’s concentrations of knowledge, power, and wealth” (192). Along with these changes comes what Zuboff calls “inevitabilism,” which becomes a full-blown ideology that justifies and empowers the dispossession cycle (222). Ultimately, this apparatus combines into what Zuboff calls the “Big Other”: “the sensate, computational, connected puppet that renders, monitors, computes, and modifies human behavior. Big Other combines these functions of knowing and doing to achieve a pervasive and unprecedented means of behavioral modification. Surveillance capitalism’s economic logic is directed through Big Other’s vast capabilities to produce instrumentarian power, replacing the engineering of souls with the engineering of behavior” (376).
They moved along with him wherever he moved. He went, still, pretty much level along the face of the slope, into the draws and out around the points through old woods and through thicket, across pastures and tobacco patches, but mostly in the woods. Sometimes he would stop or sit down, and then they would wait, and when he went ahead they would go with him. That Nightlife was not himself, that he had become merely the vehicle of something he suffered that they had not suffered, they could tell by the way he moved and carried himself, the way he looked always straight ahead and always at the ground. He moved like a man in the concentration of urgent bodily pain, though they knew his pain was not of the body. …
They were following him again, easing along behind him as before, keeping him in sight. If he knew he was thus accompanied, he gave no sign, and he did not look back. They walked nonetheless in fear that he would look back, would see and recognize them, and that the sight of them would cause him to do they did not know what.
Zuboff provides four broad perspectives for evaluating this whole situation. One, she notes the history of utopian thought and its associated problems. Two, she uses recent studies of the impact of digital technology on children and teens to argue that they are the “canary in the coal mine,” warning us about the dangers of this way of being in the world. Three, she insists that to be human is to have a “right to the future,” in the sense of the right to exercise true freedom, to decide, to chart a path. An apparatus built to manipulate your behavior removes, or at least fundamentally alters, this right. Four, Zuboff expounds a “right to sanctuary,” an ancient privilege that has served as an antidote to power. The right to sanctuary is, at root, the right to be alone, to be concealed, to be behind walls (478). Surveillance capitalism brooks no compromise; the walls must come down. All behavior must be rendered for the sake of prediction, control, and behavior modification.
In the end, Zuboff encourages her readers to “be the friction” (520), to resist the continued flow of tracking, information gathering, and commodification of data. As she puts it, “So it is for me and perhaps for you: the bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity” (522). She draws a parallel with the Gilded Age, whose lordly barons taught people how not to live, and despite their wealth earned the moniker “robber barons.” “Surely the Age of Surveillance Capitalism will meet the same fate as it teaches us how we do not want to live” (524). We can hope.
They hushed and stood still in their sopping clothes. Sam Hanks then quietly sat down on a nail keg in front of the forge. Now that they looked at Nightlife face-to-face, after all he had caused them to do and to think, they were struck by how ordinary he looked…
“Brethren,” he said, “let us stand and sing.” …
When they finished the hymn, Nightlife began his sermon—the one, as they supposed, that he had prepared for the revival service of the night before last…
Tol then stepped up beside Nightlife and picked up the gun. He said, “Nightlife, honey, I want you to see my gun. My daddy had it before me. It’s an old one.”
He opened the breech, removed the shell, and put the shell into his pocket. He snapped the breech shut again and handed the gun to Nightlife, who took it and looked it over.
“It looks like a right good old gun, Tol,” Nightlife said, and he handed it back.
They heard the dinner bell then…
“Boys,” Tol said, “I believe Old Marster and the good women have kept us in mind. Let’s go eat!”
In the end, Zuboff’s work advances a convincing case of the severity of our situation and the gravity of the problems that we face. Her avenues of resistance may yield fruit, if enough people become aware and care. Her work seeks to modify future behavior, but in a way that maintains freedom and human dignity.
Capitalism has seemed to open the doors for buying and selling things that shouldn’t be bought and sold before, of course. Most have rejected the idea that certain things can become commodities—human organs, for example. Perhaps just as the commodification of some things violates the sacredness of human life and human dignity, the “datafication” of some things violates us as well. There are black markets for human organs, but the fact that they are black markets still says something, insists something, reminds us of something. Perhaps we need a similar designation for certain types of data, rather than the current practice of swallowing everything up for the sake of behavior modification and profit, sold to the highest bidder.
I’ve interspersed sections of Wendell Berry’s “Watch with Me” because it sets up a very different sort of surveillance, for a very different purpose, and with a very different result. Surveillance capitalism watches—it watches as much as it can, analyzes what it sees, and then uses that for behavior modification. Tol Proudfoot and the other men watch Nightlife as closely as they can, but they do so out of a sense of community and love, a desire to modify Nightlife’s behavior, sure, but for his own good and preservation, not for their profit. In both scenarios, there is watching. And in both scenarios, there is a re-membering. For surveillance capitalism, we are remembered for the sake of large corporations’ profit margins. Nightlife, however, is re-membered in a different sense: brought back into the membership, allowed to preach his sermon, to have his say, and to take his place at the table for dinner.