Surveillance Capitalism Theory is Dangerously Wrong

The premise of “surveillance capitalism” is that it should be stopped for doing harms. However, what if surveillance is in fact the foundation of modern science and capitalism is the foundation of that science being sustainable?

Wouldn’t stopping authorized observations without caution then cast society perilously into ignorance?

The real threat instead of surveillance (e.g. science) seems to be in fact debt capitalism, which puts people into a power dynamic they can’t escape because of indebtedness. Think feudalism or indentured servant, even slavery as opposed to just surveillance.

The problem with slavery in other words is not really about the surveillance. Being surveilled is much easier to defeat in ways that debt makes hard, as any historian studying slavery can surely tell you.

Both the Revolutionary and the Civil War in America were not about surveillance, although it definitely was a symptom, they were about control of assets and debts.

On that note, while in 2019 I wrote about the urgent need to stop saying data is oil, I appreciate that in 2021 someone is writing “Data isn’t oil, whatever tech commentators tell you: it’s people’s lives”.

What that article gets right is talking about lives, digital and kinetic lives. What that article gets dangerously wrong, like most jumping on the new surveillance capitalism bandwagon, is modes of authorization for collecting and detaining something.

The fossil fuels that were laid down by organic processes millions of years ago in the evolution of our planet have been extracted with the permission of property owners who claimed possession of the resources that lay buried beneath their domains (or demesnes).

From that perspective, big tech companies claim possession of the data that lays buried beneath their domains. Seems counter-productive as an argument as it makes data in fact sound like oil.

It also glosses over facts like property disputes in oil were legion. Flow rate of oil extraction depended on exclusive drilling access, yet oil fields didn’t respect boundaries at the surface.

When a field crossed a property line someone drilling oil elsewhere would not only gain access under their property but reduce the access/flow of the other person extracting it everywhere else. Now add in “horizontal” drilling and it should become obvious “buried beneath their domains” was never a simple “permission” model.

And that’s the problem with critics of surveillance too. Are parents authorized in surveillance of their children? Are they authorized to claim ownership of their surveillance data? What about doctors monitoring patients?

We shouldn’t want to reduce surveillance wholesale, as it has so many positive attributes related to knowledge. We want to reduce unjust indebtedness that comes as a result of many power imbalances generated by big data tools like abusive or unauthorized surveillance.

Getting rid of things like Palantir is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s an anti-democratic pro-fascist platform that poses great dangers to society. However, we shouldn’t also get rid of knowledge platforms based on authorization to build them properly for monitoring and learning.

In other words, if we would ban someone carrying a machine gun or a bazooka (or an AR-15, yes I said it) into a public place then we would ban someone carrying surveillance automation machines into a public place.

Some surveillance technologies are so dangerous that they inevitably cause far more problems than they solve. The use of facial recognition and remote biometric technologies in publicly accessible spaces enables mass surveillance and discriminatory targeted surveillance. In such cases, the potential for abuse is too great, and the consequences too severe.

That does not mean, however, that we would ban authorized use of surveillance automation machines. We should think of surveillance tools as just that, and not lose sight of the fact that debt capitalism is what drives their use being seen as so immoral.

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