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The Age of Coronavirus Surveillance Capitalism

Naomi Klein and Shoshana Zuboff had an interesting conversation last year at The Intercept’s The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism event, and the differences they evinced that night recently made themselves very clear in the form of two pieces about big tech and the pandemic both published on May 8. Klein, activist and author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, wrote “Screen New Deal” in The Intercept as a part of a “series about the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism in the age of COVID-19.” Meanwhile, Zuboff, scholar and author of last year’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, was interviewed by Joshua Keating in Slate.

While they’re not saying wholly separate things, just as it was during their conversation last March, Zuboff shows an optimism that capitalism is not ultimately a zero-sum game and democracy is already acting as a bulwark against the potential overstepping of tech during the current crisis. Klein, meanwhile, steels us for a more dire road ahead, one where men like Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates will continue to try to “[demonstrate] the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix,” failing to acknowledge or address the issues neatly swept under the rug of “the digital divide.”

It’s hard for me to not agree more with Klein’s take on this, just as I did when she was holding capitalism responsible as the fundamental flaw of the surveillance machine (something that Zuboff is much more reluctant to do; she seems to come down on the side of other tech critics like Jaron Lanier who propose a different financial model with users being compensated for the data they provide). It’s weird having read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and having seen the measured and disturbing arguments of how human experience is now rendered into money for a select few in much the same way as human labor has for millennia before, that Zuboff still defends the democratic potential of this economic system. But having met Zuboff and talked with her in person, and now reading this interview with her, I understand where her optimism is coming from. That’s not to say I necessarily share it, but it’s important to try to; the alternative is the learned helplessness and adherence to the Borg complex that surveillance capitalists want us to feel.

In the interview with Slate, Zuboff says we live in different times than we did in the aftermath of 9/11, that people won’t be so easily sucked in by the promise of a shiny technical solution to an unutterably complex problem. She says, “In the last two years there has been a sea change in public attitudes that hasn’t yet overwhelmed the system, but it could.” And there is some truth to this, as Klein notes: “Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google’s own workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.”

I think what’s missing in Zuboff’s perspective is an indictment of the structural rot that makes tools of surveillance as dangerous and devastating as they are, and why that makes the prospects of a world overtaken by them so terrifying for all of us. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is aimed pretty squarely at (white) upper middle class academics and it deals most substantially with problems they’re likely to connect with and experience, rather than the systemic analyses of inequality presented in, for instance, Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology and Virginia Eubanks’s work. Zuboff imagines a future where those of us with the ability and time rabble-rouse for the right thing to be done; Klein warns us straightforwardly that “the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures” and “there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.”

When I spoke to Zuboff at a campus visit she made right before the U.S. started to noticeably react to the pandemic, I asked her how we might bridge “the division of learning” she comes back to again and again in her book. The division of learning is the gulf intentionally kept between the architects of the new technocratic order and the people exploited by it. She said that it would be possible to reinvest capital freed up from surveillance giants into education and public infrastructure. I don’t disagree that it’s possible, but reading about Eric Schmidt’s lobbying exploits as of late in Klein’s article has me feeling not so confident in this would-be reality.

That all being said, I’m not advocating for us to just throw the towel in and give up on making a better future possible; quite the opposite, in fact. The urgency is missing from Zuboff’s piece, and I found her suggestions similarly somewhat hollow when I asked her about the division of learning. We need to be realistic about the scale of the powers that need to be checked, and as Klein makes clear, the fact that the attempts to rebuke the surveillance giants in recent months has only made them angrier, greedier, and more determined to get what they want: “[T]he pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that [people in Silicon Valley] feel has been unjustly denied.”

Zuboff, meanwhile, compares this past turn of the century with the turn that came before it. She says we didn’t get trapped in a Gilded Age because “[the 1930s] ended up being a period of intensely fruitful institutional development, where all kinds of new institutions were finally invented along with the legislative and regulatory frameworks to support them, to make industrialization flip to democracy,” but, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we do not have a Roosevelt democrat in office right now. Instead of the establishment of something like a modern-day WPA, we have an administration that is urging states to reopen, bolstered by protesters who think this whole thing is a hoax.

It is remarkable to me that we see the technological imperialism espoused by Schmidt and his kind sprout up again and again, no matter how many times it fails. The lessons don’t seem to be learned by our political leaders, but maybe they don’t want to learn them; many are looking for a silver bullet just as desperately as the tech giants are trying to sell one to them. Many politicians either ignore or don’t care that the end game of these companies is to get more users until they’re not needed anymore, until Amazon doesn’t have to worry about striking humans and Uber can deploy its driverless cars (with or without them needing to stop killing people first). And, remind me, what economic system requires never-ending growth at the sacrifice of individual rights and dignity?

“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers said in response to the latest Gates Foundation partnership announced with the state. Andrew Cuomo and his big tech bedfellows are united in not wanting to deal with addressing those needs, those human edges that they can’t optimize out, those consequences of decades of austerity and chipping away at the social safety net. None of these people wants to admit fault or defeat–in fact, they want us to believe we owe them a debt. As Schmidt says, “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” What indeed. How dare we, for example, criticize them for firing Black employees who are trying to take collective action against dangerous and unfair practices in warehouses during the pandemic?

We’re already forked over our time and attention to these companies, and a not insignificant amount of our free will. We need to decide if we want to fork over what’s left of democracy to them, too. There’s a reason why they want their feet in the doors of education and public health, and it’s not because they want to make the world a better place. They still need healthy humans for much of what they’re calling “artificial intelligence” – we’re not obsolete yet – and why not start as early and pervasively as they can to train us to think more like the computers they want to swap us out for one day? The machine overlords aren’t machines; they’re people who want to turn us into them.

“The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what changes should look like and whom they should benefit,” Klein writes. We must force that public debate. The subtitle of Zuboff’s book is “the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.” We’re in that fight, but the free market and political nostalgia won’t help us win it.