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.”

Facebook as Lightning Rod

lightning-rod-image The New York Times has obtained some of Facebook’s internal planning records.  These show that Facebook is what it says it is, what its founders have always understood it to be: a device for harvesting intimate knowledge of people’s private lives and selling that knowledge to corporate marketers.

The meat of the NYT story is the revelation that, despite pretending to promise the Federal Trade Commission that it would cease doing so, Facebook has continued to sell “what are known internally as “capabilities” — the special privileges enabling companies to obtain data, in some cases without asking permission.”

This means, among other things:

Facebook [has] assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight. Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier. [The New York Times, 12/19/2018]

Despite its importance, the great problem with this exposé is that it is yet another major case of rotten-appleism, of trying to portray a systemic imperative as a mere miscreant malpractice. As the NYT acknowledges, “personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.”

Why is that, and what entities and forces are genuinely responsible for the radical, progressively worsening market-totalitarianism of our life environment? It ain’t just ham-handed, yuppie-faced Facebook. It is, as somebody once said, a matter of Economics 101 in our supposedly best-possible, history-resolving system.

facebook finger-point image

Meanwhile, the proper answer to all this is not more silly efforts to regulate private-sector media providers. It is to empower the United States Postal System to enter the realm of modern communications, on all fronts, with full competitive aggression. A non-commercial, publicly-guaranteed social networking website, for example, could neatly and reliably dispose of all the problems inherent in Facebook, including the privacy issue.

Long Slow March

snake Apart from providing invaluable, presumably at least partly unintended assistance to the overclass by helping legitimize the catastrophic “vocabulary of consumption” as the prevailing way of describing issues of product design and product use, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, has a long history of getting weaker and worse at pursuing its own mission. The accommodationist process is approaching its logical end. Having long ago chosen to refrain from investigating and reporting on issues of political economy and product policy, Consumer Reports now faces competition from other mere product review enterprises. In reply, what is Consumers Union doing? Why, capitulating further, of course. It has just now created the first-ever marketing campaign on behalf of the “Consumer Reports” brand name.

Big Brother was a rookie.

Least Surprising News

eyeball Advertising Age for March 30 includes a story titled “Brands Just Can’t Seem to Quit Facebook.”

Well, duh.

Facebook exists to collect marketing data, to perform for corporations what people with cameras and stopwatches do inside corporate workspaces.

According to this report, at most 5 of Facebook’s top 1,000 advertisers even might have ceased using the platform as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Most likely, none have.

“This speaks to how important Facebook is as an advertising channel, and that brands are surely making the decision that the benefits of the platform outweigh the smaller risks of brand damage due to association with it,” [marketing research firm CEO Gabe] Gottlieb says.

As Gottlieb knows, the institutional fact is that the spying done by Facebook and an ever-expanding portion of the rest of the infrastructure for off-the-job life is every bit as vital to corporate capitalists as is detailed knowledge of paid labor processes. Barring a huge popular uprising against them and their system, the powers-that-be are simply never going to desist from gathering such data. Power concedes nothing, and scrambles to cover its trail when important concessions threaten to get discussed. Hence, this phony little mea culpa melodrama.