There are some inventions that can have a transformative effect on entire societies. For example, when the earliest civilizations invented record-keeping, it seems improbable that those earliest record-keepers could have predicted the rise of writing, which has had such a profound impact on the human experience that most people in the present time would struggle to imagine a world without it. From a historical perspective, such inventions are incredible sources of fascination, but for people living through that initial introduction, that fascination can be mixed up with rightful trepidation because of their unpredictable consequences.
It cannot be doubted that the Internet is one of these transformative inventions. For proof, look no further than the sheer extent to which the Internet has permeated our lives, so much so that there are studies suggesting that the average adult spends 24 hours online on a weekly basis. Unsurprisingly, the Internet has had some unexpected consequences, with an excellent example being what is called surveillance capitalism by a retired Harvard Business School professor named Shoshana Zuboff, who was the one who coined the term.
Surveillance capitalism is named thus because it is a very modern form of capitalism. In short, it is focused on the extraction of information from consumers so that it can be packaged into products that enable interested parties to predict their future behavior. As such, surveillance capitalism can be considered an insightful way to look at a number of related phenomena that have been causing serious concern in recent times.
How Did Surveillance Capitalism Come Into Existence?
Zuboff states that surveillance capitalism came into existence in the wake of the Dotcom Bubble bursting. In short, what happened was that tech companies needed a new way to generate revenue. As a result, a number of them started offering interested individuals a wide range of online services that came free of charge, thus enabling them to secure greater penetration into their target markets than otherwise possible. Moreover, while consumers were less than enthusiastic about giving information about themselves to other parties, these tech companies have had years and years to come up with ways to secure such information through more indirect means, meaning that consent isn’t actually much of a barrier to their practices. Never mind the fact that a number of these tech companies are perfectly fine with collecting such information before asking permission, not least because the relevant techniques and technologies have advanced so fast that the law hasn’t actually caught up to the needs of the modern world. Never mind the fact that these tech companies have yet to encounter serious pushback in spite of significant public dissatisfaction caused by a number of incidents in recent times.
What Are the Potential Implications of Surveillance Capitalism?
As for why people should be concerned about surveillance capitalism, well, suffice to say that it is responsible for causing a serious imbalance of power between the people being watched and the people doing the watching as well as people who buy the products of the people doing the watching. After all, information is power in a very real sense of the word, meaning that someone who knows more about someone else will have a huge advantage when interacting with them.
For an example of this principle in action that most people will have experienced, consider how Google and other tech companies have been targeting their advertisements towards their users. Since these tech companies have collected so much information about their users, they have exceptional insight into what kinds of products and services that said individuals are interested in as well as the best ways to sell them on those same products and services. This kind of guided marketing process isn’t perfect, but Google and other tech companies have been putting a huge amount of resources into making improvements, which has resulted in exceptional results for them.
However, that is far from being the most concerning example of how such information can be used. After all, social media has become a very popular way for various parties to send out political messages, so it should come as no surprise to learn that these various parties are perfectly willing to make use of the products that tech companies turn out. There are a lot of people out there who like to believe that we are perfectly rational creatures who form our opinions after looking at all of the relevant facts, but it would be very, very naive for people to believe that they can’t be manipulated by those who could very well know more about them than themselves.