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.”

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…

The Essence of Facebook

snake As reported by none other than Michael Wolff, Mark Zuckerberg long ago admitted that, when all the cover stories are dropped, Facebook is a corporate marketing tool.

“Our business is advertising,” said Mark Zuckerberg who, although he was the penultimate speaker at the eG8 conference in a stultifying hot hall, managed to fill the room.

“This trend of people being empowered to share things that they want will be the trend for the next five or ten years. . . .” Zuckerberg probably means to share what they want to share. But it may just mean to share desires in general—impulses, hankerings, things. “If you think about advertising, what’s going to be more effective than any advertising you show is something your friend says they like,” says Zuckerberg.

Five or ten years later, here’s a very useful report on the state-of-the-art in overclass data harvesting.

As TCT has always contended, totalitarian spying is part and parcel of corporate capitalism, which literally requires its constant expansion and refinement.

Not that this kind of boilerplate-but-unmentionable social fact ever quite sinks in. Even the reporter of the above survey of what Facebook does on behalf of its other corporate clients concludes that we “did it ourselves.”

Layers of Exploitation

cookie jar photo Karl Marx saw exploitation as the core behavioral process in any class society. Overclasses always rule (and indulge themselves) by means of regimes for taking advantage of those who lack alternatives to being taken advantage of.

For rather obvious reasons, this remains a big and vastly under-researched topic. How exactly do rulers deploy threats and tricks to keep paying themselves from the sacrifices of others?

In the corporate capitalist epoch, one thing they do is big business marketing, which, as TCT readers know, is a form of class-struggle-from-above.

I mention all this because The New York Times today is running a letter from Lawrence D. Fink, CEO of BlackRock, to his firm’s shareholders. In the letter, Fink acknowledges that one of the foundational features of modern corporations is their ability to operate without direct accountability to the public that grants their charters:

Society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private,serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.

Behind closed doors, this is how CEOs understand their basic situation, though, as soon as the public inquires directly into this confidential fact, the CEOs of course flip over into insisting that even the largest corporations are merely enlarged mom-and-pop shops and thus nobody’s business but their shareholders’.

But, off the record, they know: Under present arrangements, one of the exploited parties is definitely the public in general.