Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Dharma Response: Non-Thought as Resistance, Emptiness as a Weapon. What if ‘not thinking’ became a form of resistance to a digital surveillance system that always provokes you to react to things? What if silence, stillness, not thinking, not reacting, zoning on emptiness, was a way to resist being conditioned by the Networked Empire into becoming a raw meat robot? What if you realized that most of the thoughts you think aren’t even your thoughts, but thoughts borrowed from others: family socialization and education, media and social media, peers, groups and organizations you belong to, work cultures, religious cultures, political cultures, just to name a few? What if not thinking became a form of resistance to other people’s thoughts, to ideologies, to conditioned reactions, to programmed algorithms that try to control what you think?
Zuboff’s new book will be out on Jan. 15, 2019: THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
First of all, hello to the audience. It seems like it’s an amazing group of thinkers and activists and music lovers. I’m very honored to be here among you although I’m sorry I can’t be there in person and join the party because it sounds like it’d be a great party tonight. Anyway, I do want to talk to you about the theme of dark google. As Daniel mentioned I wrote a piece on this in the FAZ that came out last April and another piece on this theme that just came out in September. One was called “Dark Google” the other was called “Our Digital Declaration.” These are the themes that I want to discuss with you today but before I get right to dark google I want to pose a question and that is why does google matter? I want to expand our horizons a little bit and create some context for us to think about why we should be concerned about google and the way it’s developing. So, Daniel mentioned the Harvard Business School. I spent 25 years as a professor at the Harvard Business School. As you can see I started when I was 12. During that time I saw a new business model take root and rise to dominance. This is a business model that I conciser to be contemptuous of humanity and contemptuous of our planet.
You can call it neoliberalism, financial capitalism, shareholder capitalism, the label is less important than understanding it’s consequences. What’s becoming clear to many, many people today is that this model has taken us to a new destructive situation and points to an even more dangerous future. A future that’s characterized by exclusion, stratification, inequality, but also the reactions to those things. What do I mean by that? Fundamentalism, despair, violence, and also the reactions to those things. Repression, resistance, extremism. All issues that we are engulfed in right now. I don’t know if any of you have seen it but there’s this great research operation, the PEW research center, and just last week they released a very interesting survey where they asked people in the EU what they regard as the biggest threat to the future. And overwhelmingly people in the EU said the biggest threat is inequality, the social divisions that are being created in our society. The people in the EU are right. This is the biggest threat to our future both because of the kind of society that it’s creating and the potential for violence in our societies but also because we know from studies of civilizational collapse that the more stratified and unequal a society is the more prone it is to collapse and resource depletion. And the reason is that when you have elites who are separated, dramatically separated from the rest of society they have ways of buffering themselves from the negative consequences of resource depletion and they refuse to take leadership to change the situation because it might alter their status and their opportunities.
Both in terms of nature and people a stratified society is a dangerous society. And I don’t mean that everyone is supposed to be exactly equal but I do mean that these extreme social divisions are very, very dangerous. Some of you might have heard of this recent book that was written by Thomas Piketty, the French economist, about capital in the 21st century. Hold on. [gets book] Alright this is the book. [holds up book] You can see that it’s a very thick book. I want you to see that because I want you to know a little bit about what Piketty is saying. Most people don’t read the book. There’s a study that was done that figured out that most people read the first 25 pages. But basically the message is this. Piketty shows that the problem we’re facing is not capitalism per se but rather what happens to our societies when capitalism is allowed to develop without any social constraints. Think of it as a raw, unshackled capitalism. And it’s that kind of capitalism that produces inequality. So, I’ve been able to reduce this very thick book to one sentence. Ok, you ready for it? My sentence is capitalism is not intended to be eaten raw. Ok? Don’t eat capitalism raw. And the point that I’m making is that we need laws and we need social institutions and we need the collaboration amongst us in a democratic spirit in order to cook capitalism and make it edible. Ok? And that’s the stuff we’ve lost in the last 30 years.
While all this is going on many of us took refuge in the online world. We went there to find new sources of autonomy and freedom and creativity to build lives outside of these barriers that were being erected in this world of raw capitalism. But the thing we need to understand now is that the online world, which used to kind of be our world, is now becoming the new zone where capitalism is developing in new ways, new forms, and where capitalism is operating. So, here comes the question. Will these new forms of capitalism that are developing in the networked world – are they going to solve the problems that we face today or are they going to make these problems worse? We can no longer treat these as two separate zones. These have become the same world. Now, when we look at the networked world I think, and this is part of what my book is about, that there are some very exciting and positive developments for capitalism in our online world. But there are also some really dangerous developments. And they are developments that are really hard to theorize, hard to grasp, because in some ways they have been designed to be undetectable. They’re designed to be invisible. This is the context in which google matters.
Google is one of the biggest actors, perhaps the biggest actor, in the online world. And I want to say google matters not just because of the immense amount of money it has amassed, not just because of the unimaginable concentration of information power that it has amassed, but because of this: google has pioneered a wholly new business logic. New in the history of capitalism. And this new logic is becoming the model, has already become the model, for most new online businesses, applications, and online startups. If the google model becomes the dominate model of the online world it becomes the dominate model of the future of capitalism. And that is a very dangerous prospect and I’m going to tell you why. The first thing you need to know about google is that we are not its customers. I have a feeling that most of you already get this but it’s worth repeating because it is extraordinary and completely unique in the history of capitalism. Google’s customers are its advertisers and the others who purchase their data analyses. Google is thought of as a Big Data company, in fact the biggest Big Data company, because it has the most users. But as users we are simply the source of the data that it analyses for its customers. They call it data exhaust because that’s meant to connote that its waste and it doesn’t matter when actually it’s the stuff about our lives.
Whatever else we want to say about modern capitalism going back to the beginning of the 20th century and before, think about this. Capitalism has always depended upon its populations for two things. One is for employees and the other is for customers. This is no longer true. In the google model it employs very few people. The whole company only employs about 48,000 people. So it’s not really looking to us for employees. Just as a point of comparison general motors in 1958, at the height of its power, was the largest private employer on the planet. So that gives you an idea of the way we flipped this model. The only thing google needs people for is data. And this means that data is everything. Data is becoming everything. Every time you brush a key or whisper past your cellphone that’s data and that’s stuff that google wants. The ugly truth here is that this so called “Big Data” is actually plucked from our lives without our knowledge and without our informed consent. I call it the poisoned fruit of a rich array of surveillance practices designed to be invisible and undetectable as we make our way across the virtual but now also the real world, not just our online behavior but walking in the street, walking into a shop, and pretty soon, getting into our cars.
Of course all of this is complicated by the fact that there are also highly undetectable and invisible collaborative arrangements with state security apparatus, state security operatives in our various countries, and these are also hidden from our inspection. It’s also complicated by the fact that the pace of these developments is accelerating because a company like google is now investing in drones, in wearable technologies, in the smart devices for our homes, the internet of everything and all of this is creating a massive digital infrastructure of “Big Data” that I prefer to call Big Contraband or Big Stolen Goods because these things were taken from us without our permission. And because of that we’re actually looking at a new asset class, these data constitute a new asset class, and I’m calling that asset class surveillance assets. Surveillance assets attract to them a great deal of investment and I’m calling that investment surveillance capital. And so now we’re beginning to see the picture where what we’ve created in google is a – what you’d call when you’re thinking about capitalism – a new logic of accumulation. And this is accumulation by surveillance. In other words this is a wholly new economic model in the history of capitalism and I’m calling it surveillance capitalism.
And so now we’re beginning to see the picture where what we’ve created in google is a – what you’d call when you’re thinking about capitalism – a new logic of accumulation. And this is accumulation by surveillance. In other words this is a wholly new economic model in the history of capitalism and I’m calling it surveillance capitalism.
What is key here to understand is that populations, that means all of us, no longer exist to be employed and served. We exist to be harvested. Harvested for behavioral data.
What is key here to understand is that populations, that means all of us, no longer exist to be employed and served. We exist to be harvested. Harvested for behavioral data. Now the objective of a company like google is quickly moving beyond just analyzing data about what we’ve already done to analyzing data about what we’re doing right now to actually analyzing data to predict what we might do to actually intervening in thousands and thousands of very subtle ways to modify our behavior, to shape our behavior in order to try and determine what we’ll actually do next. Every single point in that process is going to be monetized and marketized, turned into revenue streams for google, for its advertisers, for the others who are bidding on opportunities to modify our behavior to serve their financial interests. And that’s why Daniel calls this, “Reality is The Next Big Thing” because what I’ve argued is that reality is being turned into a new commodity class called behavior. Ok, so does this mean we have no more privacy? I would say no, it doesn’t mean that. What it means is that privacy has been redistributed. There’s actually a lot of privacy but instead of everybody having some privacy what’s happened is the surveillance capitalists have usurped our privacy rights so they have all the privacy and we’re left with no privacy. And they use that privacy to carry on this business without our being able to inspect it or control it. So there is now not only a concentration of information power there’s a concentration, a hoarding, of privacy rights.
Alright, I don’t know about you but when I see an entity like this usurping our rights, unilaterally asserting its authority to take our rights without our permission, asserting its authority to take our data without our permission, I see this as politics. And I want to say that google represents a revolutionary new politics. It’s a revolution from above. It’s a coup from above. It’s not a coup d’etat. It’s a coup d’gens [spelling?]. It’s an overthrowing of the people, not of the state. And that’s why google, which began as something that intended to empower us, has become something that represents one of the darkest threats for our future. When I talk about an overthrowing of the people, what I’m seeing as the natural progression of this kind of development is an automated passivity that attempts to reduce us to our animal condition. And our animal condition is one of stimulus and response. This new world of monetized reality is attempting to place us in a vortex of stimuli to which we respond just as the old behaviorists used to put rats in a maze and call it operant conditioning to give them the shocks, the rewards and punishments that would allow the scientists to predict the behavior of the rats. That’s the direction surveillance capitalism is taking us.
Is this going to fix our problems of income and social inequality? Is this going to fix the divisions in our society? Is this going to fix the problems that a contemptuous capitalism has produced? My answer to that is no. Instead it’s going to institutionalize these problems in a universal digital infrastructure to which people must submit if they want to participate. So, what do we do? Must this be our destiny? And that’s where you come in. My answer is no. This must not be our destiny. And to prove that to you I want you to do one thing for me which is look at the person standing to your left. If you could do that right now, look at the person standing to your left and please shake their hand. Look them in the eye and shake their hand. Alright now look at the person standing at your right and shake their hand. It’s not corny. It’s important. When you look at the people standing beside you, you are not seeing illiterate surfs. This is not the 14th century. What you see is an educated, thinking, critical, opinionated individual. That’s who we are. And people like us are not going to let dark google be our future.
Here are the things we need to know. First of all, we are only at the beginning of this new era. Only at the beginning. If we compared this, 2014, to the 20th century, 1914, we would be in the 20th century at a point where Ford had only been manufacturing Model T’s for a couple of years and General Motors was a small startup company. We are only at the beginning of this new information civilization that will dominate the 21st century. Ultimately the successes of capitalism back in the 20th century, including the many decades of shared prosperity, those were shaped by the gradual development of legal and social institutions that amplify capitalism’s social benefits and tamed its excesses. Just what Piketty was talking about. When we look forward to life in the year 2040, when most of you will be in your 50’s I assume, everything that is true about life in the year 2040 will depend upon what we do now. What we do now to build new institutions, to insist on new laws, to insist on alternative, positive, pro-social forms of information capitalism that do not subjugate us but serve us, that align with our needs for effective life, and do not try to usurp our rights but rather allow us to flourish. In 2040 we will look back at this time and we will see this time as the beginning.
Like capitalism itself the power of a company like google, or any expression of surveillance capitalism, is not to be eaten raw. But we are the cooks. We must cook it. We must cook it with a reassertion of democratic rights, of oversight, and of law. We must tame it with real, competitive alternatives that express positive and constructive market forms aligned with our true needs and aspirations. This is our democratic challenge and we must not turn away from the demands of this challenge. The century ahead, if it is to be a century in which we all flourish, depends on us now. I don’t what you to think that I’m talking about utopia, this does not mean that we should construct utopias, but rather it means that we have to draw upon the authentic promise of our own aspirations, our own individuality, and our own sense of democratic values. We have to draw upon the promise of the digital as we understood it before Edward Snowden entered the terrain of history.
In the shadow and the gloom of today’s dark googles it has become fashionable to mourn the passing of the democratic era. But I want to say that democracy is the best that our species has developed so far and woe to us if we abandon it now. The real road to serfdom is to allow ourselves to be persuaded that these declarations of democracy that we have inherited are no longer relevant to our digital future. That they will be overwhelmed by these powers of surveillance capitalism. But these things are inscribed in our souls and if we leave them behind we leave behind the best part of ourselves. If you doubt me try living without them. I have done that. I have been in countries without democratic rights. I have lived in countries without democratic rights and it’s not an alternative. That is the wasteland and we should fear it. But I want to leave you with this thought. I do not fear it because I do not anticipate it. And I do not anticipate it because I believe in you. My hope for the future rests in you, and you, and you and each one of you. That’s the promise. That’s the promise of today. So, go. Do.