In last week’s post on Voting For a Better Canada I skipped lightly over the mechanisms of how our democratic vote is being subverted in order to look at what kind of a Canadian government we would want to vote for if we could have our druthers.
Today I want to go back a step and examine more carefully the mechanisms being used to subvert democracy: Surveillance Capitalism . I will draw heavily on Shoshana Zuboff’s seminal book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—The Fight for a Human Future at the new frontier of power. If you care about democracy and the future of human civilization this is a book you want to read soon!—It’s in the VIRL collection.
It is no accident that “No” side complaints about electoral reform in BC were almost unanimously posited as “It’s too complicated!” The problem wasn’t that anyone demonstrated that the electoral options on the ballot didn’t deliver on better/more representative governments. The argument never got that far. “It’s too complicated.”—and I am sure ,you– like me—heard it over and over: “It’s too complicated!”
Can you imagine someone going into a showroom of shiny new cars and coming back out shouting over their shoulders at the bewildered car sales person, “It’s too complicated.”
No you won’t hear it because there is not a vast bank of special interests researching every aspect of human life in order to come up with a reason for you not to buy a new car.
However in a referendum like electoral reform where our biased electoral system that by its very structure squeezes out all voices but the dominant culture is on the block there is a …a vast bank of special interests researching every aspect of human life in order to come up with a reason for you not to vote for electoral reform. That “vast bank of special interests” Shoshana Zuboff calls “Surveillance Capitalism.” That vast bank of shriveling everything came to the conclusion that the handle which the No side could defeat electoral reform was the petty but pervasive resentment that “It’s too complicated.”
It gives me the creeps to even talk about how big brother Google, Facetime, Alexa, in fact –the whole of social media and our little spies in the machine Alexa, Cortana, Siri etc have found their raison d’etre in spying on every minute detail of the what was once thought of as “private lives.”
If it is “Smart,” it is reporting back to its masters about everything you do or say. When you get up, where your work, where you eat, who you see, what you watch, what you write to whom, where you go for your vacation, who you see on vacation, what you think about just about anything, what makes you happy, what scares you, what websites you visit, how long you dither over what content on these websites, what are your greatest fears, your spiritual perceptions, all of your shopping habits, just about all of what you do and think is not only spied on, it is recorded and sent to analysts to synthesize into strategies for manipulating you and your world.
The scandal Cambridge Analytica (CA) was the opening of public perception to the world of ubiquitous spying on the internet. Under the pretense of a “personality assessment” CA gained access to the private motivations of millions of Facebook clients. This information was used to target US voters with messages that could cause them to vote for Donald Trump. Racists and gun tooting fanatics were the highest priority to get out to vote, but the data mining searched for any vulnerability toward resentment of others as a handle on which to begin manipulating voters. CA was also found to have used racial hatred as the motivating handle in the Brexit referendum.
Despite the exposure of Cambridge Analytics’ actions, Facebook and Google, are still amassing and analyzing private information for commercial and political clients. Shoshana Zuboff refers to this comodification of personal data for political and commercial purposes as Surveillance Capitalism. While we once thought of Orwell’s book 1984 as plumbing the depth of corporate/state control of human life, Zuboff describes how surveillance capitalism has turned Orwellian tyranny upside down so that the populace doesn’t have to be spied on and incarcerated in order to be controlled by the few. In our modern world the populace has been bribed by internet trinkets into “voluntarily” giving up their personal information and freedoms for the sake of “free” virtual trinkets.
I wonder if it will be possible to defeat the self proclaimed ignoramus US President with all that computational power out there analyzing every tiny bit of personal information for a handle on which to motivate citizens to vote for something/someone they would never rationally choose. All the years that humanity has put into trying to find a way to life together in mutual respect regardless of race, tribe, location, vocation, religion is being rapidly eroded as megalithic internet companies reduce every bit of human information into strategies to politically and commercially manipulate everyone.
Zuboff is adamant and passionate about preserving our right to a private life: “I believe in the values of human freedom and human autonomy as the necessary elements of a democratic society. As the competition of these prediction products heats up, it’s clear that surveillance capitalists have discovered that the most predictive sources of data are when they come in and intervene in our lives, in our real-time actions, to shape our action in a certain direction that aligns with the kind of outcomes they want to guarantee to their customers. That’s where they’re making their money.”
I don’t have an answer to this highly effective invasion into our private lives. I don’t have an answer to how we will protect our right to vote on electoral reform without these huge companies/political alliances using their spying on every aspect of human existence to entirely confuse what the referendum is about.
I do know that we must solve this problem before we can have any kind of meaningful referendum on any issues or any kind of meaningful elections. I know that Google and Facebook and Microsoft have to be broken up so they can no longer trample, unimpeded on our hard fought for democratic society. I know that before we can act together we need to agree together that we need to act and that our democratic values are more important than the digital trinkets that Google and Facebook and the other digital giants throw at us.
I would dearly love to spend time discussing our options with others who have read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—The Fight for a Human Future at the new frontier of power. Surely if others can get together to discuss great literature, some of us can get together to discuss the big issues of our times.
nreynolds @ shaw.ca.