Surveillance Capitalism?

In her new book, Shoshanna Zuboff argues that, in order to be realistic, “it is necessary to distinguish between capitalism and surveillance capitalism.”

Surveillance capitalism, she says, is a new kind of power structure, resulting from an elite coup d’etat against regular-old corporate capitalism.  Here is how Zuboff defines the break:

When a firm collects behavioral data with permission and solely as a means to service or product improvement, it is committing capitalism, but not surveillance capitalism.

The question this raises is when it was that major businesses started collecting behavioral data without permission in order to do something other than objectively improve their products.

The answer, of course, is: Exactly as soon as they could — meaning a long time before the AMGAF (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook) complex came into existence.

By 1923, Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s acolytes were giving corporate planners lectures on the need to apply Taylor’s methods to the task of “sales engineering.”

According to corporate management’s at-the-time self-reporting, by the 1950s, the idea had reached fruition, triggering what is now known, in standard business history, as the “marketing revolution.”

The engine of that revolution? Boilerplate corporate capitalism, a.k.a. profit-seeking under the new-and-improved, entirely normal-capitalist conditions made possible by the Corporate Revolution of the 1880s.

Both ever-expanding data scraping and treatment of products as sales-maximizing, behavior-conditioning stimuli were elementary marketing priorities from Day One of the Marketing Era. Both pre-date, clearly and massively, the inevitable emergence of AMGAF.

Funny, then, that in this book’s 531 pages, Zuboff does not discuss big business marketing! I mean, the word “marketing” does not appear in the book’s index!

Hence, despite the many useful arguments and facts Zuboff provides in this work, the thing is a giant red herring, an effort to make hair-splitting look like brain surgery.

Big business marketing is really a rather amazing institution. The main engine of national and global culture and a plain and direct outgrowth of our socio-economic order, it is somehow so ideologically well-insulated that almost nobody can bring themselves to mention, let alone analyze, it.

The Age of Attribution

terminator 2 image As TCT has long argued, big business marketing only ever grows. Hence, unless and until we create a new social movement capable of perceiving, analyzing, and countering it, market totalitarianism will also only grow.

Consider the case of AT&T, the corporation just now releasing new services that will allow corporate advertisers to achieve, in the still hugely important activity of “linear TV” what is known in the marketing trade as “attribution.”

AT&T, of course, is a venerable corporation, dating back to the early days of the Corporate Revolution, in which, under elite lobbying pressure, U.S. states began, in the late 1880s, granting investors charters stripped of prior “grant theory” limits on conglomeration and cross-ownership.

Recall, too, that, in the ironic year of 1982, the U.S. government compelled the break-up of AT&T, which by that time had become the 22nd largest U.S.-based largest business.

As of 2018, AT&T was #9 in the Fortune 500, and also, according to Wikipedia, “the world’s largest media and entertainment company in terms of revenue.”

In that capacity, the bigger-than-ever behemoth is now promulgating Xandr, the private-sector espionage operation that will “provide a premium option for advertisers and publishers looking to reach specific audiences at scale in premium and brand-safe environments”: attribution.

Attribution is the ability to know, rather than merely guess, how individuals respond to advertising delivered via conventional television broadcasts. It is the computerized tracking of specific individuals’ real-world behaviors. With such capability, big business marketers gain ground on two major fronts in “Audience Targeting”:

Segmentation
Use consumer insights from various trusted and secured data sources to better connect with current, lapsed or future customers. Identify particular patterns to predict future intentions and connect those individuals with the most relevant advertising.

Identity
Mobile, TV and broadband customer relationships create a holistic view of consumers and their various touchpoints. By continually cleansing and normalizing IDs across channels we maintain a high-quality data set. This process provides deterministic household and device mapping with the ability to add probabilistic scoring to expand reach.

Xandr, by the way, provides some tales of the resultant improvements in overclass command over off-the-job affairs.

One aim of such new power, according to Xandr itself, is to increase the frequency of moments “when a brand helps [marketing targets] find a product they didn’t know they wanted.”

Games and the System

Bosch image According to Nielsen data reported by Advertising Age, in the year 2018, “live sports generated 89 of the year’s 100 largest audiences” on “live plus one” TV in the United States.

This explains why there is so much money flooding into professional and quasi-professional sports now. The inherent suspense and ease-of-understanding in live athletics is now pretty much the only thing that can get large numbers of people to watch television on advertisers’ preferred terms — meaning with low control over their own exposure to ads and in-broadcast marketing messages.

Noam Chomsky is a doubly good source for making sense of the huge meanings of this news about the evolution of big business marketing, which remains by far the main engine of American off-the-job culture, aka “free time.” First, the Herman-Chomsky model of corporate capitalist media has much to offer anybody trying to figure out the filters that affect not just news reporting, but also broadcast entertainment content. Second, Chomsky has sharp and powerful things to say about the socio-political logic of sports fanaticism.

Consuming Research?

monocle image Approaches to Social Research, by Royce A. Singleton and Bruce C. Straits, is a lovely, well-written book about what social scientists call “research methods,” i.e. the techniques for maximizing the relevance and minimizing the imprecision of the evidence against which honest social hypotheses and theories should be judged. I like the book, really.

One of the topics it covers is the “validity” of concepts and measures. In social science, a concept or measure is more valid when its “goodness of fit” to reality is higher. For concepts, the question of validity is answered by judging whether a particular definition “adequately represents all facets (the domain)” of the particular aspect of reality its purports to describe.

Quite so, and quite important. Is it childbirth or stork fly-overs we’re talking about here?

Funny, then, that Singleton and Straits, in explaining the reasons people ought to read their tome, say that “You may be a consumer of research.”

Really? How, pray tell, might I possibly consume research? Would putting Approaches to Social Research through a wood chipper do the job? Perhaps exposing it to a few bursts from a flame-thrower? Would refusing to read it at all count as a form of its destruction, which is, after all, what “consumption” has to mean in any sane universe?

What S & S mean to say, of course, is that, if you pay any credulous attention to today’s shared non-fictional world, you are by definition going to be a USER of social research, and therefore ought to have some knowledge of the basic rules and standards for conducting, evaluating, and reporting such research.

So, despite its inarguable and flagrant violation of one of the bedrock rules of social science, the “consumer” vocabulary is now so triumphant, so breezily familiar, that it sails right past even major experts on the importance of holding to robust, unbiased definitions.

Would that we could consume this confounding reality…

Facebook Ain’t Going Away

The question of the week comes from marketing guru Rich Greenfield, who just said this to Advertising Age about the status of Facebook, following more (mis-reported) revelation of its core business practices:

“Why would [an ad agency] advise clients not to use Facebook?” Greenfield asks. “It’s not like there are a lot of good alternatives.”

That is what they call, in academia, “instrumental morality,” i.e. the ends justifying the means.

Big businesses will, in other words, keep doing what they need to do to achieve their end, come –ahem — hell or high water.

Biden in a Nutshell

trickle-down imageHarry Braverman classically observed that Frederick Winslow Taylor’s refinement and promotion of the principles of scientific management was “nothing less than the explicit verbalization of the capitalist mode of production.”

In a system as forceful and predictable as this one, this system-speaking happens quite often, if you listen for it.

One figure who has managed to voice the regime is none other than good ole Joseph Robinette Biden, presumptive seller of the Democratic Party brand, 2020 edition.

In a May 8 address to the Brookings Institution, Biden revealed his theory of social class:

[W]hen the middle class does well, everybody does very, very well. The wealthy do very well and the poor have some light, a chance. They look at it like maybe me, there may be a way.

So, to clarify:  When the wealthy do “very well,” the middle does “well,” and the workers get “some light, a chance.”  And this is the ideal — the way the system is, in Biden’s world, supposed to work.

This premise is exactly, precisely the disguised content of all the “middle class” talk that has always been the Democratic Party elite’s proffered reply to the Reagan Revolution.

Upon Millsian translation into plain language, this, of course, IS the core claim of the Reagan Revolution: Say’s Law, a.k.a. trickle-down economics, a.k.a. the timeless maxim of the masters of mankind, a.k.a. Douglass’s rule.