What is a Christian response to surveillance capitalism?


Mark Ireland has just written a fascinating Grove booklet on Surveillance Capitalism and the Loving Gaze of God. He begins by noting both the positive and the negative aspects of the internet, both for living and for Christian discipleship and ministry.


I love technology—the connectedness, the ready flow of information and ideas. When I was growing up, if you wanted to influence public opinion your options were pretty limited. You could write a letter to the local paper, you could organize a petition, or you could plan a public demonstration. Now if I want to share a thought or idea, I can write something on a social media post or a blog, and it can travel round the world while I sleep. When I was a young teacher in a mission school in the foothills of the Himalayas, keeping in touch with my mother meant writing a letter (never my strong point) and then waiting for two or three weeks to receive a letter back, answering questions I may have forgotten asking. Today it is so different—I am able to keep in touch with a friend who is a young mission partner in an isolated part of East Africa instantly by WhatsApp.

And yet recent events in the news have highlighted dangers of the accumulation of power in the hands of a very few individuals and companies, for whom knowledge is power. In the USA a high-powered Congressional Committee summoned the four big tech titans from Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook and shone a spotlight on how their control of the market stifles competition and gives users no alternative to an increasingly surveillance-based society. Evidence given included, for example, that Amazon now accounts for 70% of online sales in the USA, that the Google search engine captures 90% of searches worldwide, and that 63% of searches on Google end up on a page controlled by Google.

I love being a disciple of Jesus and rejoice in the opportunities which the internet gives to deepen my own discipleship and help others to grow as disciples. Like so many clergy, during the pandemic I suddenly had to learn new skills which enabled me to lead worship via Zoom, via Facebook Live and via YouTube. In lockdown I discovered how to hold meetings without travelling, maintain contact with others through social media and share ideas and teaching resources through blogs and webinars. The pandemic has forced churches into the twenty-first century and enabled clergy and lay leaders to learn new ways of communicating the gospel, and many have been brought to faith and discipled online.

However, I have also become uneasily aware of how much our lives have become dependent on an internet which is increasingly controlled by a handful of incredibly large and influential corporations who accumulate far more knowledge about us than we realize by digital surveillance. The risk is that we become beholden to principalities and powers who give us what we want, but at a cost we do not see.

Surveillance is not bad in itself—every civilization has had ways of keeping eyes on the behaviour of its citizens for the welfare and stability of society. My concern is that while surveillance capitalism has brought the huge benefits of the digital revolution to the mass of the world’s population—so that even Bedouin in the desert and subsistence farmers in Africa now have smartphones—it has done so in ways which exploit the poor, concentrate power in the hands of a few, subvert democracy, fuel consumerism and harm the planet.

I want to contrast the unhealthy impacts of surveillance by big tech companies with a different kind of surveillance which we all live under, which is the lov- ing gaze of God. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and uses his power not to control our lives but to set us free. As a disciple of Jesus I long to see humanity liberated by God, who submitted himself to the wounded surveillance experienced by Jesus stripped naked and nailed high up on a cross.


Mark goes on to explore how surveillance capitalism has developed, why it presents some serious ethical issues, and how thinking theological can help us respond. He concludes by looking at how we can regulate, resist, and redeem this pervasive feature of our lives.

I was able to interview him about the subject, and about the booklet, below. You can buy the booklet for £3.95, post free in the UK, from the Grove website.


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18 thoughts on “What is a Christian response to surveillance capitalism?”

  1. Give me Big Father over Big Brother any day. Interesting to hear Mark’s comments on episcopal (and arch-deaconal) “surveillance” — during the pandemic I got lots of instructions and injunctions (including the infamous ban on entering my own church to pray, but not for maintenance, security etc.) But in this blizzard of blanket communiques there wasn’t one, not one, piece of personal, proactive pastoral care. By this I mean an email or phone call from my Bishop or Archdeacon just to me and just to ask how I was doing. And to be honest that was the thing that really hurt, more than the panic and overreach (which were at least understandable, if no less unfortunate). At the most difficult time in my 25 years of ordained ministry pastoral care from the hierarchy of the Church was nil. The silence was deafening. Bishop “episcope” means “oversight” but it feels more like “overlooked”.

    Re the Mark of the Beast: many (most? all?) Biblical prophecies have more than one horizon / fulfilment. [Maybe we should call it the Mark(s) of the Beast(s)?] From the numerology of “Nero” to the Nazi’s six-sided yellow stars to quantum dot tattoos*. All of these, I think, had or have the power to regulate who could buy and sell but as we get more and more connected “hiding places” and un-governed areas are disappearing; I’m absolutely not a conspiracy theorist but some measure of “world government” is increasingly possible through technology and technocracy. And Rev 13 is quite specific: ALL people, and the mark “on their right hands or on their foreheads” (although I accept that much of Revelation is spiritual / symbolic that does seem to be a literal branding on named parts of the body.)

    *ID2020’s work is fascinating — especially their development of quantum dot tattoos: invisible to the naked eye and with read/write capabilities, so able to be updated. Perfect for medical records and even financial transactions.

    Here’s a piece from a pro-biohacking site, i.e in favour of implants etc:

    https://biohackinfo.com/news-bill-gates-id2020-vaccine-implant-covid-19-digital-certificates/

    Reply
      • Why do the nations rage? Are they not like the sea? Chaotic, restless, confused. The beast rising from this metaphorical sea is a description of the principalities and powers coming together in unity and purpose. Red denotes beauty and glamour. Our virtual world is slowly taking shape. It will be like an animal without empathy. It will be like a talking statue. An image made up of wishful thinking. We’re almost there. It doesn’t have to be a person, it could be the sum total of every bit of data turned into a virtual person. Nero was the first iteration.

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        • But of course impressing people with technology has been happening for millennia. Talking statues are well documented in the cults of the first century and since.

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          • Yes, the ‘Present age’ has always been full of wonders. AI is deemed sentient by some. How long before insulting a virtual person gets one into trouble?

  2. The Internet doesn’t need Regulation (quis custodiet custodes?), it needs Crushing by Competition – and this will only happen if the Oligarchy is broken up, just as railroads, oil companies and telephone companies were broken up in the US by antitrust legislation. No one company should ever be allowed to hold 10% of information on citizens. Compulsory demergers must happen.
    There never has been a time like today when so much information has been in the hands of so few – and pace Mark Ireland it isn’t just retailers trying to flog us stuff, it is government and other bodies forming ideas of what citizens are like or believe based on their web searches. This is very dangerous, especially in a world of doxxing and shadow banning.
    Ireland referred to Brexit being “influenced ” by internet advertising – I think that’s a bit farfetched since public money – £9 million of taxation – was used to leaflet the nation and the establishment was in lockstep against Brexit. That includes the C of E bishops! Only ex-bishop Mark Rylands supported Brexit – and 66% of self-described Anglicans. (Why are Anglican bishops so atypical of the C of E?)
    Ireland could also have usefully asked about the way internet giants like Google and Twitter ban material thry don’t like (e.g. Hunter Biden’s laptop) or push to the top of the search list sites they prefer (or who pay to get top billing). Google, remember, helped set up Chinese censorship and no doubt assists the CCP in its “social credit” scheme.
    The point about DuckDuckGo is a good one. Imagine if your employer – or bishop – or some political advocacy group was to buy or access a record of your internet searches? I see the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle Australia is demanding to know from “his” clergy whether thry support Gafcon Australia.

    Reply
    • Dear James. A (perhaps minor) correction to your contribution: Mark Rylands isn’t an ‘ex-bishop’; he’s a former Bishop of Shrewsbury in the Diocese of Lichfield. He’s still a Bishop, but is now an Incumbent in (I think) the Diocese of Exeter.

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  3. It’s probably not very satisfactory to comment before reading the whole case presented by Mark Ireland in his Grove booklet. It’s also the case that whatever you say today is likely to be out of date by tomorrow!

    However, it seems to me that ‘surveillance capitalism’ doesn’t describe the whole situation. On its own this might be tackled by competition rules, as others have already suggested above. But in reality this is not just a problem of big capitalism. The reality is that we have a rapidly developing synergy between global corporations and global powers (governments, WEF, WHO etc) which are openly exhibiting the kind of authoritarian behaviour which intends to bypass democracy and individual rights to privacy altogether. In fact it’s perfectly possible to discover the same people involved in every facet of an increasingly joined up global set of policies, some of which are clearly driven by the kind of atheistic ideology which crops up over and over again in various forms through history. Today’s offering (soaked in surveillance) has recourse to technology undreamt of in earlier times.

    In such a situation individual citizens, even whole country populations, have no democratic recourse for protection; indeed the experience of communicating with MPs here in the UK is that they either have no clue about what is going on, have no interest, or are silently signed up to a new dystopian vision for our future. Freely disseminated knowledge on the internet of what is going on is clearly being surveilled and possibly censored – something which has a chilling effect on free speech and the ability to access background knowledge relating to current issues. Without free access to knowledge of what is happening and trust in a healthily competitive journalistic offering democracy is meaningless.

    Christians have lived and churches have grown under all manner of political systems. God’s revelation to human beings may even be clearer in thin times when there are fewer distractions from economic riches! So good times offered by democracy and wealth are not part of our gospel message: what we have to offer looks to an infinitely greater eternal priority. But if Christians, as individual citizens, are to be salt in our present human circumstances they must surely be ready to point out and even oppose people and policies which can only push their fellow citizens into hardship, bleak lives, and even insidious forms of slavery. Abuse, of whatever form, is sin, and God’s people are not exempt from labelling it as such whether it’s done by individuals, big businesses or governments. Yet Christians on the whole are not saying anything. It’s very odd. If there is a good case for maintaining the current silence, it would be interesting at least to hear it.

    So I do wish Christians here in the UK (as well as elsewhere) would at least address the issue.

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    • I agree – the issue is much, much bigger than “surveillance capitalism”, it is transnational surveillance politics with a definite ideological bent. It is the same small group of ultra-rich gatekeepers of information purporting to set thd agenda for the herd.
      When people like Zuckerberg are courted by politicians to get “their” message through, you know we are in a post-democratic world. When Zuckerberg and Gates start using “their” wealth (built on the back the US Military communication system) to change education or farming policies in nations, then you know we have moved into a new age of imperialism.
      Throw into this a pandemic and the state-funded power of Big Pharma and see what you get.
      I have seen reports that Pfizer provides thd “fact checkers” for Facebook. A conflict of interest, perhaps.
      What do you think of that, Mark – post-democratic crony surveillance?

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      • To describe the Internet as “the US Military communications system” is very far from the mark. I doubt very much that the USA or any other country with any sense of security uses the Internet infrastructure for their communications. Classified traffic uses private networks.

        It is true that the Internet protocols originated as an ARPA project. However, it was all well in the public sphere, and managed by an international organization – the IETF – by perhaps 1980. It was precisely this openness which resulted in its success over networking offered by the PSTNs which stymied themselves by wanting to extract revenue from traffic.

        Because the Internet is based on a connectionless networking protocol (called, imaginatively ‘Internet Protocol’, hence “IP Address”) compared with the connection-oriented protocols the PSTNs offered (e.g. X25), it does mean that the Internet is a lot harder to monitor. Traffic between two end-systems can pass through different network routers on the way.

        There are some pinch points, where international links, e.g. undersea cables, reach the border. This does enable, for example, the “Great Firewall of China”.

        In case you are wondering, I worked in a university computing service from ’85-’95 when the UK universities used JANET but the Internet was rising as something much more useful. Then from ’95 I have worked for a software company providing messaging software for, amongst others, governments and military.

        So, please don’t inaccurate scare language.

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        • I was referring to the origin of the internet (“built on the back off”). I didn’t see it as scare language – as Thucydides said, “war is the father of us all”, and so many advances in culture and technology (aircraft, nuclear physics, rockets) have their origin in preparing for war, I am sure governments use something a bit more secure (pace Hillary Clinton).
          Google’s assistance in building the Great Firewall of China will go down as one great acts of transnational infamy against human freedom.

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      • Politicians have always courted those who in a position to influence people. In the past it was newspaper owners, and to an extent that is still true. If I mention the name Rupert Murdoch, I think I have made my point.

        I think Microsoft had made Gates rich (although he was already rich before he started M$) before the Internet had really come into common usage. You might not agree with his policies, but it does seem better for him to spend at least some of his (perhaps ill-gotten) wealth on projects to benefit others rather than indulge in vanity projects like Elon Musk. The problem here is partly that wealth can get so concentrated in the hands of a few.

        The extent to his influence seems exaggerated. As of 2020 the Gates Foundation (funded by others as well as Gates, it should be noted) had about $50 billion in endownment (compared the amout which the CofE commissionioners have) and I think they are required to disburse 5% of the per year – $2.5billion. This is small compared with the foreign aid budgets of countries. The UK’s budget is about £11.5 billion. It is OK for rich countries to influence education or farming policies, but not a charitable foundation?

        Oh, and did you know that the vitamin and food supplement industry in the USA alone is worth perhaps $30 billion a year. Anti-vaxine stuff has its funders as well, you know.

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        • I wasn’t thinking about the Gates Foundation but the political clout of a small number of Silicon Valley corporations ( whose worth is in the trillions). This is an enormous danger to democracy. As I said before, it is very wrong to allow the accumulation of so much *information in the hands of a few like-minded people. These companues need to be broken up, demerged etc.
          And what is YouTube but monetising theft of other people’s property on a global scale?
          We rightly condemn Russian oligarchs wuthout seeing the same in the west.

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