The long read: It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism
When a rural community loses its hospital, health care becomes harder to come by in an instant. But a hospital closure also shocks a small town's economy. It shuts down one of its largest employers. It scares off heavy industry that needs an emergency room nearby. And in one Tennessee town, a lost hospital means lost hope of attracting more retirees.
Here’s a great example of why pure capitalist competition doesn’t work in areas like health care and education in large swathes of America. Small communities like this one often have only one option of a hospital to go to, and often they don’t even have that. And many health care issues don’t allow for direct competition and choice because they are emergent and one can only go to the closest provider with their fingers crossed.
Shoshana Zuboff's interdisciplinary breadth and depth enable her to come to grips with the social, political, business, and technological meaning of the changes taking place in our time. We are at a critical juncture in the confrontation between the vast power of giant high-tech companies and government, the hidden economic logic of surveillance capitalism, and the propaganda of machine supremacy that threaten to shape and control human life. Will the brazen new methods of social engineering and behavior modification threaten individual autonomy and democratic rights and introduce extreme new forms of social inequality? Or will the promise of the digital age be one of individual empowerment and democratization?
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is neither a hand-wringing narrative of danger and decline nor a digital fairy tale. Rather, it offers a deeply reasoned and evocative examination of the contests over the next chapter of capitalism that will decide the meaning of information civilization in the twenty-first century. The stark issue at hand is whether we will be the masters of information and machines or its slaves.
Can’t wait to get this…
On first blush, I’ll note that the cover looks a lot like that of Pikkety’s Captialism in the 21st Century. Certainly an interesting framing by the publisher.
Shoshana Zuboff is the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. She talks with Leo Laporte about how social media is being used to influence people.
Even for the people who are steeped in some of the ideas of surveillance capitalism, ad tech, and dark patterns, there’s a lot here to still be surprised about. If you’re on social media, this should be required listening/watching.
I can’t wait to get the copy of her book.
Folks in the IndieWeb movement have begun to fix portions of the problem, but Shoshana Zuboff indicates that there are several additional levels of humane understanding that will need to be bridged to make sure their efforts aren’t just in vain. We’ll likely need to do more than just own our own data, but we’ll need to go a step or two further as well.
The thing I was shocked to not hear in this interview (and which may not be in the book either) is something that I think has been generally left unmentioned with respect to Facebook and elections and election tampering (29:18). Zuboff and Laporte discuss Facebook’s experiments in influencing people to vote in several tests for which they published academic papers. Even with the rumors that Mark Zuckerberg was eyeing a potential presidential run in 2020 with his trip across America and meeting people of all walks of life, no one floated the general idea that as the CEO of Facebook, he might use what they learned in those social experiments to help get himself (or even someone else) elected by sending social signals to certain communities to prevent them from voting while sending other signals to other communities to encourage them to vote. The research indicates that in a very divided political climate that with the right sorts of voting data, it wouldn’t take a whole lot of work for Facebook to help effectuate a landslide victory for particular candidates or even entire political parties!! And of course because of the distributed nature of such an attack on democracy, Facebook’s black box algorithms, and the subtlety of the experiments, it would be incredibly hard to prove that such a thing was even done.
I like her broad concept (around 43:00) where she discusses the idea of how people tend to frame new situations using pre-existing experience and that this may not always be the most useful thing to do for what can be complex ideas that don’t or won’t necessarily play out the same way given the potential massive shifts in paradigms.
Also of great interest is the idea of instrumentarianism as opposed to the older ideas of totalitarianism. (43:49) Totalitarian leaders used to rule by fear and intimidation and now big data stores can potentially create these same types of dynamics, but without the need for the fear and intimidation by more subtly influencing particular groups of people. When combined with the ideas behind “swarming” phenomenon or Mark Granovetter’s ideas of threshold reactions in psychology, only a very small number of people may need to be influenced digitally to create drastic outcomes. I don’t recall the reference specifically, but I recall a paper about the mathematics with respect to creating ethnic neighborhoods that only about 17% of people needed to be racists and move out of a neighborhood to begin to create ethnic homogeneity and drastically less diversity within a community.
Also tangentially touched on here, but not discussed directly, I can’t help but think that all of this data with some useful complexity theory might actually go a long way toward better defining (and being able to actually control) Adam Smith’s economic “invisible hand.”
There’s just so much to consider here that it’s going to take several revisits to the ideas and some additional research to tease this all apart.
Esteban Kolsky, Denis Pombriant, Keith Teare, Gené Teare, and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Saturday, February 3, 2018.
An entire episode on water and sustainability.
Without seemingly knowing it they dance around the idea of needing a mixed economy. It’s almost as if they only know about capitalism and competition and there are no other options out there. We need protections (read “regulations” if you’re a Republican) put in by a planning and forward thinking government and then we can use capitalism as the fulcrum to ramp up and accelerate potential solutions when competition will bring them about.
The U.S. misunderstood not only how China would respond to economic growth, but how the U.S. would respond to China.
Many in the United States believed that capitalism would never work without political freedom. Then China began to rise.
I listen to this and it reminds me of the wealth and growth in America in the early 1900’s in part because of the fact that the U.S. had a mixed-economy. Sadly it seems like we’ve moved away from that towards a more capitalistic economy. Perhaps it’s time to swing back?
Sadly, China may be taking advantage of their mixed economy, but they don’t seem to have the level of freedom we’ve got.
Foreign companies will no longer be allowed to sell products from their own affiliated companies in India
NEW DELHI—India is tightening restrictions on foreign e-commerce companies operating in the country, a new challenge to Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc. as they bet billions on the nascent market.
Current rules forbid non-Indian online sellers from holding their own inventory and shipping it out to consumers, as is typically done in other countries. Instead, they have found a work-around by operating as online marketplaces and selling what are effectively their own products held by their affiliated local companies.
They will no longer be allowed to sell such goods, a division of India’s Commerce and Industry Ministry said in a statement Wednesday, an apparent attempt to close that loophole.
The new rules, which take effect Feb. 1, also bar foreign companies from entering into exclusive agreements with sellers. Amazon, for example, has in the past been the exclusive third-party online retailer to sell smartphones from the popular Chinese smartphone brand OnePlus.
Abneesh Roy, an analyst at Edelweiss Securities, noted that ahead of elections set for early next year, the government could be moving to appease owners of smaller shops that have been hit as customers buy more goods online.
“Shopkeepers have been unhappy,” he said. “In an election year, the government will definitely listen more to voters.” ❧
It’s nice to see foreign countries looking at what has happened to coutries like America with the rise of things like e-commerce, actually thinking about them and the longer term implications, and making rules to effect the potential outcomes.
Now the bigger follow up question is: is this a good thing? Perhaps there won’t be the community interruption we’ve seen in the US, but what do the overall effects look like decades hence? From a community perspective, from a competitive perspective?
December 27, 2018 at 12:26PM
Market power lies behind many economic ills. Time to restore competition
How a financial wizard took over a giant of American retailing, and presided over its epic decline.
One has to wonder why shareholders aren’t going berserk over what’s happening to their value here. Even a small multi-million dollar settlement seems insignificant to the overall value they seem to have lost, even in a market space that would seemingly be shrinking. Someone somewhere isn’t minding the store like they should and it feels like some self- and double-dealing is going on.
Bankruptcy wasn't inevitable. It was Wall Street's business strategy.
IN WATCHING the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history. The past year has seen a flood of articles commemorating the end of the Cold War, and the fact that "peace" seems to be breaking out in many regions of the world. Most of these analyses lack any larger conceptual framework for distinguishing between what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history, and are predictably superficial. If Mr. Gorbachev were ousted from the Kremlin or a new Ayatollah proclaimed the millennium from a desolate Middle Eastern capital, these same commentators would scramble to announce the rebirth of a new era of conflict.
And yet, all of these people sense dimly that there is some larger process at work, a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines. The twentieth century saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war. But the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an "end of ideology" or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.
In general, while I’ve been reading Stuart Kauffmann’s At Home in the Universe, I can’t help but thinking about the cascading extinctions he describes and wonder if political extinctions of ideas like Communism or other forms of government or even economies might follow the same types of outcomes described there? ❧
August 29, 2018 at 09:37AM
Building on this, could we create a list of governments and empires and rank them in order of the length of their spans? There may be subtleties in changes of regimes in some eras, but generally things are probably reasonably well laid out. I wonder if the length of life of particular governments follows a power law? One would suspect it might. ❧
August 29, 2018 at 09:43AM
Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia
The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism. ❧
August 29, 2018 at 08:53AM
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. ❧
What if, in fact, we’ve only just found a local maximum? What if in the changing landscape there are other places we could potentially get to competitively that supply greater maxima? And possibly worse, what if we need to lose value to get from here to unlock even more value there?
August 29, 2018 at 08:56AM
Hegel believed that history culminated in an absolute moment – a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious. ❧
and probably not a bad outcome in an earlier era that thought of things in terms of clockwork and lacked the ideas of quantum theory and its attendant uncertainties.
August 29, 2018 at 08:59AM
Believing that there was no more work for philosophers as well, since Hegel (correctly understood) had already achieved absolute knowledge, Kojève left teaching after the war and spent the remainder of his life working as a bureaucrat in the European Economic Community, until his death in 1968. ❧
This is depressing on so many levels.
August 29, 2018 at 09:05AM
Paul Kennedy’s hugely successful “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, which ascribes the decline of great powers to simple economic overextension. ❧
Curious how this may relate to the more recent “The End of Power” by Moisés Naím. It doesn’t escape one that the title of the book somewhat echoes the title of this particular essay.
August 29, 2018 at 09:18AM
But whether a highly productive modern industrial society chooses to spend 3 or 7 percent of its GNP on defense rather than consumption is entirely a matter of that society’s political priorities, which are in turn determined in the realm of consciousness. ❧
It’s not so much the percentage on produced defense goods, but how quickly could a society ramp up production of goods, services, and people to defend itself compared to the militaries of its potential aggressors.
In particular, most of the effort should go to the innovation side of war materiel. The innovation of the atomic bomb is a particularly nice example in that as a result of conceptualizing and then executing on it it allowed the US to win the war in the Pacific and hasten the end of war in Europe. Even if we otherwise had massive stockpiles of people or other weapons, our enemies could potentially have equaled them and dragged the war on interminably. It was the unknown unknown via innovation that unseated Japan and could potentially do the same to us based on innovation coming out of almost any country in the modern age.
August 29, 2018 at 09:24AM
Weber notes that according to any economic theory that posited man as a rational profit-maximizer, raising the piece-work rate should increase labor productivity. But in fact, in many traditional peasant communities, raising the piece-work rate actually had the opposite effect of lowering labor productivity: at the higher rate, a peasant accustomed to earning two and one-half marks per day found he could earn the same amount by working less, and did so because he valued leisure more than income. The choices of leisure over income, or of the militaristic life of the Spartan hoplite over the wealth of the Athenian trader, or even the ascetic life of the early capitalist entrepreneur over that of a traditional leisured aristocrat, cannot possibly be explained by the impersonal working of material forces, ❧
Science could learn something from this. Science is too far focused on the idealized positive outcomes that it isn’t paying attention to the negative outcomes and using that to better define its outline or overall shape. We need to define a scientific opportunity cost and apply it to the negative side of research to better understand and define what we’re searching for.
Of course, how can we define a new scientific method (or amend/extend it) to better take into account negative results–particularly in an age when so many results aren’t even reproducible?
August 29, 2018 at 09:32AM
FAILURE to understand that the roots of economic behavior lie in the realm of consciousness and culture leads to the common mistake of attributing material causes to phenomena that are essentially ideal in nature. ❧
August 29, 2018 at 09:44AM
“Protestant” life of wealth and risk over the “Catholic” path of poverty and security. ❧
Is this simply a restatement of the idea that most of “the interesting things” happen at the border or edge of chaos? The Catholic ethic is firmly inside the stable arena while that of the Protestant ethic is pushing the boundaries.
August 29, 2018 at 09:47AM
Hence it did not matter to Kojève that the consciousness of the postwar generation of Europeans had not been universalized throughout the world; if ideological development had in fact ended, the homogenous state would eventually become victorious throughout the material world. ❧
This presupposes that homeostasis could ever be achieved.
One thinks of phrases like “The future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.” But everything we know about systems and evolving systems often indicates that homeostasis isn’t necessarily a good thing. In many cases, it means eventual “death” instead of evolving towards a longer term lifespan. Again, here Kauffmann’s ideas about co-evolving systems and evolving landscapes may provide some guidance. What if we’re just at a temporary local maximum, but changes in the landscape modify that fact? What then? Shouldn’t we be looking for other potential distant maxima as well?
August 29, 2018 at 09:52AM
But that state of consciousness that permits the growth of liberalism seems to stabilize in the way one would expect at the end of history if it is underwritten by the abundance of a modern free market economy. ❧
Writers spend an awful lot of time focused too carefully on the free market economy, but don’t acknowledge a lot of the major benefits of the non-free market parts which are undertaken and executed often by governments and regulatory environments. (Hacker & Pierson, 2016)
\August 29, 2018 at 10:02AM
Are there, in other words, any fundamental “contradictions” in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure? ❧
Churchill famously said “…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
Even within this quote it is implicit that there are many others. In some sense he’s admitting that we might possibly be at a local maximum but we’ve just not explored the spaces beyond the adjacent possible.
August 29, 2018 at 10:08AM
For our purposes, it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso, for we are interested in what one could in some sense call the common ideological heritage of mankind. ❧
While this seems solid on it’s face, we don’t know what the future landscape will look like. What if climate change brings about massive destruction of homo sapiens? We need to be careful about how and why we explore both the adjacent possible as well as the distant possible. One day we may need them and our current local maximum may not serve us well.
August 29, 2018 at 10:10AM
I feel like this word captures very well the exact era of Trumpian Republicanism in which we find ourselves living.
August 29, 2018 at 10:37AM
After the war, it seemed to most people that German fascism as well as its other European and Asian variants were bound to self-destruct. There was no material reason why new fascist movements could not have sprung up again after the war in other locales, but for the fact that expansionist ultranationalism, with its promise of unending conflict leading to disastrous military defeat, had completely lost its appeal. The ruins of the Reich chancellery as well as the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed this ideology on the level of consciousness as well as materially, and all of the pro-fascist movements spawned by the German and Japanese examples like the Peronist movement in Argentina or Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army withered after the war. ❧
And yet somehow we see these movements anew in America and around the world. What is the difference between then and now?
August 29, 2018 at 11:46AM
This is not to say that there are not rich people and poor people in the United States, or that the gap between them has not grown in recent years. But the root causes of economic inequality do not have to do with the underlying legal and social structure of our society, which remains fundamentally egalitarian and moderately redistributionist, so much as with the cultural and social characteristics of the groups that make it up, which are in turn the historical legacy of premodern conditions. ❧
August 29, 2018 at 11:47AM
But those who believe that the future must inevitably be socialist tend to be very old, or very marginal to the real political discourse of their societies. ❧
and then there are the millennials…
August 29, 2018 at 11:51AM
Beginning with the famous third plenum of the Tenth Central Committee in 1978, the Chinese Communist party set about decollectivizing agriculture for the 800 million Chinese who still lived in the countryside. The role of the state in agriculture was reduced to that of a tax collector, while production of consumer goods was sharply increased in order to give peasants a taste of the universal homogenous state and thereby an incentive to work. The reform doubled Chinese grain output in only five years, and in the process created for Deng Xiaoping a solid political base from which he was able to extend the reform to other parts of the economy. Economic Statistics do not begin to describe the dynamism, initiative, and openness evident in China since the reform began. ❧
August 29, 2018 at 11:58AM
At present, no more than 20 percent of its economy has been marketized, and most importantly it continues to be ruled by a self-appointed Communist party which has given no hint of wanting to devolve power. ❧
If Facebook were to continue to evolve at it’s current rate and with it’s potential power as well as political influence, I could see it attempting to work the way China does in a new political regime.
August 29, 2018 at 12:04PM
IF WE ADMIT for the moment that the fascist and communist challenges to liberalism are dead, are there any other ideological competitors left? Or put another way, are there contradictions in liberal society beyond that of class that are not resolvable? Two possibilities suggest themselves, those of religion and nationalism. ❧
August 29, 2018 at 12:19PM
This school in effect applies a Hobbesian view of politics to international relations, and assumes that aggression and insecurity are universal characteristics of human societies rather than the product of specific historical circumstances. ❧
August 29, 2018 at 12:30PM
But whatever the particular ideological basis, every “developed” country believed in the acceptability of higher civilizations ruling lower ones ❧
August 29, 2018 at 12:37PM
Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again. ❧
Has it started again with nationalism, racism, and Trump?
August 29, 2018 at 12:48PM
As I noted in my last post, I recently read Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community as a means of thinking a bit more deeply about the ways that Generous Thinking deploys the notion of community.
Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia
Calls to work on behalf of the community or to the community’s values wind up not only, as I noted in my last post, ignoring community’s supplementary role with respect to capital but also essentializing a highly complex and intersectional set of social relations. ❧
This reminds me of some studies in psychology about why people vote and for whom they vote. It’s not always who they would vote for individually, but who would a group of people like them vote? This makes the “community” portion far more complex than it would appear.
I should track down the original references, but I think I remember reading about them via either George Lakoff or possibly Malcolm Gladwell.
Under late capital, the non-profit has been asked to take over the space of providing for community needs or supporting community interests that had formerly been occupied by the state as the entity responsible for the public welfare. ❧
I know the book American Amnesia talks about the value built up by a strong government working in conjunction with a capitalist machine over the past century or so. I wonder if the later half of the book gets into how to shift things back in this manner?
Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in upstate New York are roughly the same size. They compete for the same students. Both have long traditions of academic excellence. But one of those schools is trying hard to close the gap between rich and poor in American society—and paying a high price for its effort. The other is making that problem worse—and reaping rewards as a result.
“Food Fight,” the second of the three-part Revisionist History miniseries on opening up college to poor kids, focuses on a seemingly unlikely target: how the food each school serves in its cafeteria can improve or distort the educational system.
It would be nice to figure out a way to nudge some capitalistic tendencies into this system to help fix it–but what?