What is wrong with surveillance capitalism?

Mark Ireland writes: Our dependence on technology has been highlighted by the lockdown, as many congregations have discovered the benefits of Zoom, YouTube and Facebook. However, two events in the news recently have shown the digital revolution has dangers as well as benefits, in a world where knowledge is power.

In the UK the exams fiasco has shown the danger of making life-changing decisions about people on the basis of computer algorithms. Algorithms, which have the aura of impartiality, will always be unfair for some since they are based on probabilities. They also tend to have biases embedded within them because of the limited world-views of those (predominantly white males) who develop them. Distortions also creep in when the data is itself flawed, having been inputted by poorly paid, isolated workers in the gig economy, as Simon Cross highlighted (Church Times Comment, 7 August).  

In the USA a Congressional Committee has interviewed the CEOs of the four big tech companies (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook) and concluded that too much power has been concentrated into the hands of too few, and regulation is needed. The chair commented that Google has evolved from being a turnstile giving access to the internet into a walled garden designed to keep competitors out, either putting competitors out of business or taking them over.

Over the last few weeks I have been reading Shoshana Zuboff’s timely and prophetic book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books, 2019), in which she shows how Google and Facebook use their knowledge about the most intimate details of our lives gleaned from our search histories on the internet, from reading all our emails, from the things we ‘like’ on Facebook and the fitbits and healthapps we use, not only to predict our behaviour and sell advertising individually targeted to us, but also to sell that information to those who mould and change our beliefs and our behaviour.

This financial model has brought huge profits but incentivises companies to increase the knowledge they have about us, by whatever means. The concepts of personalisation and the connected home, where machines anticipate our every need before we realise it, extends surveillance into ever more intimate spaces, as we let computers record and screen our conversations via gadgets like Alexa and Echo.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 transformed the attitude of big government to the big tech companies. Having previously attempted to regulate them in the name of privacy, suddenly the US government and others realised that the best way to prevent future global terror attacks was to harness the tech companies’ knowledge, monitoring the world’s population on a much more sustained and intrusive level, to detect behaviour and personality types before a crime was ever committed.

Should church buildings close during lockdowns?

When the first lockdown was announced on 23rd March this year, it was followed fairly swiftly by the announcement from Church of England bishops that, going beyond what was legally required or requested, that church buildings should be shut definitively. Not only were there to be no physical gatherings of congregations, clergy were not to … Continue Reading

Do we have a theology of the laity?

Following my article exploring whether there is a real theological distinction to be made between the ‘clergy’ and the ‘laity’, there was some interesting discussion online, and out of that John Griffiths passed me the article he wrote on the theology of the laity, which was published in The Reader Magazine (now titled Transforming Ministry) … Continue Reading

On bishops, creation and the environment

Last week, the Diocese of Oxford posted a video, the first in a planned series of four, in which Olivia Graham, the recently-appointed bishop of Reading, gave a short theological introduction to the reasons why Christians should be concerned about the environment. In it, I think she said some unusual and (it turned out controversial) … Continue Reading

Bill Love, TEC and same-sex marriage: implications

Andrew Goddard writes: Following my previous post which explored the Hearing Panel ruling on Bishop Bill Love and the background to it, this article seeks to begin exploring some of its implications and possible consequences. Bishop Love has already written to his diocese and initially appears unlikely to appeal despite noting the significance of the … Continue Reading

Bishop Bill Love, TEC, and same-sex marriage in the church

Andrew Goddard writes: The recent negative judgment by The Episcopal Church’s Hearing Panel on Bishop Bill Love’s pastoral direction nearly two years ago to the clergy of his diocese (Albany) is justifiably leading to widespread comment and concern. But what has happened and what is really at stake? This article explains the background and some of … Continue Reading