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.

Google and Facebook have cunningly made privacy a duty of the individual to protect, rather than an obligation of the companies to respect. A major tool is the misleadingly named privacy policy, which we all fail to read several times a day. Zuboff says these should be called more accurately ‘surveillance policies’, since they have been impenetrably drafted so that we unwittingly cede all rights over our personal information to the company to sell on to whoever they choose.

The big tech companies would like us to think that the digital revolution is unstoppable, and that their activities are benign and don’t need regulating. Yet are seeing many harmful outcomes:

  • For the planet and the depletion of non-renewables, as people are manipulated by ever more targeted advertising to buy things they don’t need, and the internet itself is becoming voracious in its demand for electricity.
  • For democracy, where fake news and millions of individually targeted ads are credited with changing the outcome of both the Brexit referendum and US presidential elections.
  • For the weak and vulnerable, where the massive rise of online gambling has led to an estimated 2 adults a week taking their own lives in the UK, with the most vulnerable people being specifically targeted by advertisers.
  • For the mental health of children and young people, pressured by cyber-bullying, and forever dogged by past indiscretions.

As Christians we should be concerned. If we are made in the image of God then all lives matter equally, and our personalities are not mere commodities to be bought and sold for profit. Human autonomy is infinitely precious to a God who does not manipulate us but leaves us free to choose. God longs for relationship but only out of freewill not compulsion, even though he knows from the beginning that the decision to make humans free will cost the agony of the cross. As a church we are called to speak truth to power, to a prophetic witness speaking out against the accumulation of power and profit in the hands of the few, and the exploitation of the poor.

But now big tech companies know more about each of us than we know ourselves, and use their market dominance to squeeze out competition. For example, nearly 90% of searches online now use Google, and 63% of these searches end up on sites controlled by Google. Facebook is able to profile the likes and dislikes of every one of its 2 billion users, and to sell that information.

Apologists for the increasing intrusion of surveillance in our lives often say, ‘Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.’ At one level Christians should be in a better place to cope with no privacy than others, if we are living lives of transparency and integrity. The psalmist writes: ‘You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.’ (Psalm 139.3-4)

Being known by God carries no fear, because in God I am perfectly known, warts and all, and at the same time I am perfectly loved. But having so much about me known by tech companies, who are motivated by profit rather than by love, and use that knowledge to make predictions and judgments about my behaviour which may be wrong, is something to be afraid of. Artificial intelligence can never know me perfectly, because its algorithms are written by flawed human beings, and AI can never love me perfectly.

If knowledge is power, then intimate knowledge of us falling into the wrong hands, as with frequent large data breaches, is something to fear. On a more sinister level the government of China is now using its all-intrusive surveillance of its citizens through their mobile phones and other apps in a way that gives a frightening glimpse of how this information can be used in a totalitarian state to create a system of total social control.

In the 19th century there were two powerful reactions to the Industrial Revolution. One was to try to destroy the looms in the Lancashire cotton mills, to put the clock back, which of course was futile. The other was to use legislation like the Factory Acts and moral influence from the churches to mitigate the most harmful effects of industrialisation and harness new found prosperity for good ends.

Learning from the Luddites we need to resist the temptation to be ‘Christians against progress’, as if every new invention is somehow of the evil one. We also need to listen to the voice of younger generations in our churches, who are digital natives, and are more aware of the dangers as well as the benefits of IT, and often much more savvy than their parents.

Historically we need to take the long view and realise that people’s lives have been subject to powerful forms of social control in every age – in Lancashire, where I work, the 19th century millowners (some of whom had deep Christian faith and paternalist motivations) provided employment in return for the fruits of their workers’ labours. Often they employed wives, husbands and children, provided their houses, built the parish church, and even invested in the rise of Fylde coast resorts, so that their influence pervaded every aspect of life.

The advance of technology might be unstoppable, but that does not mean it has to be unregulated. In the industrial revolution the invention of the blast furnace and the spinning jenny could not be undone, but that didn’t mean there was no need for Lord Shaftesbury, the Clapham Sect or Octavia Hill, to stop children being sent down the mines and provide decent housing.

Learning from the example of the Clapham Sect in the 19th century, there are a number of practical steps Christians can take. We need to campaign for legislative change in Parliament – regulation of the tech industry is urgently needed in four areas, to promote safety, privacy, honesty and competition. The Bishop of St Albans’ influential work with the House of Lords review of the gambling industry shows that greater regulation to protect the vulnerable is achievable. The Church Commissioners can use their investment portfolio and the churches’ moral voice to bring pressure to bear on tech companies to act more ethically.

As individuals we can also do much more to protect ourselves and our own privacy. I have installed DuckDuckGo as my search engine, which keeps no record of my search history, and am now looking to change my private email from Gmail. We can also disable all but essential cookies when we visit a new website. But last and most important, we can redeem the culture – rather than bemoaning the digital revolution, let’s find more creative ways to harness it and use it for good.

(Originally published as two articles in the Church Times.)

Mark Ireland is Archdeacon of Blackburn and co-author of several books on mission, evangelism and discipleship.

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26 thoughts on “What is wrong with surveillance capitalism?”

  1. Every time I go on Google, it asks me to agree to choices, eg personalising ads. It takes me 18 clicks to say “No” to everything, but I assume it’s worth the trouble of doing this every time. (Yes, maybe I should change my search engine.) Two clicks on Facebook. Does anyone know if this actually works?

    Why would I or anyone want personalised “useful to me” adverts? Adverts are a supposedly necessary evil.
    Yet another reason, incidentally, to support the BBC against attack. (Just thought I’d sneak that in.)

  2. The idea that it is the internet causing us to consume more doesn’t seem credible. When has it not been in man the drive for consume without limit? Certainly, not the 1980s. Being that man is consuming then he will be consuming stuff that uses energy. The fact that something like the internet consumes energy is not an interesting fact, the interesting fact would have to actually compare it to holistically to the alternative (Personally, I am still in favour of a carbon-tax).

    ‘For democracy, where fake news and millions of individually targeted ads are credited with changing the outcome of both the Brexit referendum and US presidential elections.’

    Fake news is in the eye of the beholder. For example, isn’t ‘millions of individually targeted ads are credited with changing the outcome of both the Brexit referendum’ is a form of fake news (to borrow a phrase from Wikipedia: ‘By whom?’). Certainly, if Trump said ‘Voter fraud is credited for winning Biden the election’ the media would cry ‘fake news’ and ‘oh so you admit he won’ despite the fact that, of course, it is credited by people and probably by a far greater number of persons that think Brexit was manipulated. It is similar to the fact that the claims of fraud apparently have to be preceded by ‘unsubstantiated’, despite the fact that there are far more signed affidavits alleging fraud than for any of their smears that they repeat without worry.

    Targeted ads allow groups without the money or the bully pits to get their message out there. Those with the money have always had that power. Whether good or bad in consequence, this lower capital requirement is surely more democratic.

    I do think that we need to consider the rise of the internet. I agree with the thrust of the argument. However, there should be a consideration that CofE clergy also live in this world and that some of the codswallop that they believe might be part of their bubble, rather than it just affect the other.

    • For instance, Ian Paul recently re-tweeted a video to mock Trump supporters. He did not say that this was satire, nor did he give any source for where the video came from.

      Is there an acknowledgment from the CofE bubble that this is spreading false news too?

      • I guess I should be flattered as this kind of surveillance of me…! The funny thing was the final comment: ‘We are not stupid. Trump is a genius. That is what the J stands for.’ It was widely reported that Trump supporters were calling for voting to be suspended in some states, and encouraged in others. Are you suggesting this is fake news?

        • It’s not surveillance! If I’m going to read your blog, then I’m going to read your microblog.

          ‘ It was widely reported that Trump supporters were calling for voting to be suspended in some states, and encouraged in others.’ I assume you mean ‘counting’, but as you say that wasn’t the point of your sharing the video. The point of your sharing the video was: This Trump voter is so stupid, he can’t spell ‘genius’. That I say is Fake News.

          I think this fake news double standard really is failing to love our neighbour as ourselves. When the other side posts ‘Fake News’ it shows how malicious and stupid they are. When this side does it then it shows how stupid and malicious the other side must be for it to seem credible.

    • “The idea that it is the internet causing us to consume more doesn’t seem credible.”

      I’d agree that the Internet does not create desire for “things” but I’d suggest it feeds that desire for more and more consumption in a way that leaves previous advertising methods almost standing still. … and desire has a voracious appetite.

      “Fake news is in the eye of the beholder.” What, all of it? You don’t think some “news” isn’t simply lying?

      “However, there should be a consideration that CofE clergy also live in this world and that some of the codswallop that they believe might be part of their bubble, rather than it just affect the other.”

      It might be… are you part of this bubble or is it observation from another bubble?” Let him who is without a bubble cast the first stone “

      • When did man not consume his income? Unless the internet is encouraging us to work more to buy more then I don’t see how it can change our consumption aggregates.

        I do think that some news stories are simply false. (I think news stories that are an outright, deliberate lie is not what is meant by Fake News but is the motte where those found out retreat to for a while, before attacking any revealed falsehood from the other side.) However not all false stories are judged the same way. Some are forgivable errors by those with good intentions, and some are Fake News.

        For example, the fellow who broke the Trump war dead smear in The Atlantic was a leader in support for the War in Iraq. But he is part of the right circles so he will not be condemned as Fake News by the mainstream new sources, but can be excused because he “didn’t realize how incompetent the Bush administration could be.” His falsehoods aren’t Fake News but actually show how evil the other side. Why are those excuses accepted by the BBC from those that hobnob with BBC journalists, but not accepted when made from those who hobnob with their mate who works as a plumber?

        ‘It might be… are you part of this bubble or is it observation from another bubble?” Let him who is without a bubble cast the first stone “’

        Oh, I’m in a different bubble, but I am making the effort to remove the plank from my own eye – such as posting on this left-wing website, double-checking any claim I make – so as to be able raise the issue of a mote being in others.

        • “When did man not consume his income?”

          Maybe when he decided to give more away? I’d suggest that plenty of Christians do exactly this.

          “such as posting on this left-wing website” “remove the plank by posting”

          I think that’s too big a plank to bother commenting on. 😉 Happy surveillance… “I’m out”.

          • Of course, that which is given away is consumed by others – thus not changing the environmental calculus – even if one were to grant that the internet did reduce charitable giving (which I am not).

        • I tend to agree with this comment (even if I wouldn’t endorse its strenuousness).

          It’s worth remembering that much of the West’s consumption is financed by quantitative easing, the modern equivalent of Rome’s currency debasement; which not only shored up its trade with the world and its Emperor’s vanity projects, but also hastened its fall.

          Revelation echoes Is. 13:19 in alluding to the ultimate collapse of Rome’s untenable credit-fuelling of its amorally consumption-focused human society: “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.” (Rev. 18:11-13)

          Yet, despite this grim picture of collapsed capitalist greed, Jesus’ high priestly prayer addresses the ‘demand side’ of worldly temptation without seeking to insulate us from its ‘supply side’: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)

          So. I’d challenge this post’s ‘supply side’ focus which chimes with the abdication of personal moral responsibility and, thereby, shifts the blame for our own poor choices onto unscrupulous power elites who it insists must be brought to book.

          There’s nothing wrong with decrying the avarice of today’s internet giants, but, while we’re at it, let’s also lament the inanity of those who can’t be bothered to expend a few more mouse clicks to safeguard their privacy and pocketbooks.

          To indulge such an abdication of personal responsibility by placing the blame elsewhere is inimical to God’s call to repentance.

  3. On the power of google (and other companies): Have you come across Dr Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein on Twitter)? He is an American Democrat who has become extremely concerned about the manipulation of google (and Facebook) advertising being used to increase the Democrat vote. He used researchers from both sides of the political spectrum to capture “ephemeral advertising” which would normally disappear without trace. He was horrified by what he found, and the way it would have influenced the election unfairly (even though the influence was in a direction that he personally supported). It’s also scary to think about the far reaching influence these companies could have over other issues.

  4. Mark I wonder if you’ve come across Rod Dreher’s book ‘Live not by lies’ – he argues we face a new form of soft totalitarianism, with two weapons: an ideology of social justice and surveillance technology. He argues we’ve much to learn from those believers who survived in the East during the Cold War in terms of how to survive (but as I’ve only just started it I can’t say too much about *how*!

  5. Ecclesiastes 10:20
    Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.

    Good advice in any age

  6. Interesting to read that the Bishop of St Albans is involved in work to “protect the vulnerable.” I wish he’d issue a public response to safeguarding concerns made concerning a certain cleric of his parish who not only failed to protect the vulnerable on her watch but was actually oversaw one of the worst miscarriages of justice this nation has ever seen…

  7. It should have been obvious for years to any thoughtful observer that the internet as it is constituted poses enormous threats to the lives of ordinary people, and the failure to rein it in has been one of the worst lapses of modern politics. The dangers as I see them are these:
    1. It is intolerable to allow a tiny group of companies and individuals a virtual monopoly of world information. This is worse than the monopolies that ruled oil and the American railroads in the first part of the 20th century.
    2. A tiny class of billionaires imagine they can control American politics through control of the media and their buying power on TV ads, along with their enormous influence on political parties. Look how Bloomberg tried to buy the Florida election.
    3. Gathering information on us all on the basis of our computer searches is frighteningly close to a Stasi level of surveillance. It should be prohibited as a matter of law.
    4. Big Tech knows how to make deals if it’s in its own interest. Google’s enabling of Chinese censorship of the web was an act of inconscionable greed and collusion with evil.
    5. These companies abuse their protected legal status. Twitter now censors with impunity views it does not care for, and other platforms shadow ban without telling. YouTube is the greatest violator of copyright in the world- and it makes billions out of it.
    But is there now the will to control these companies as they must be? I cannot see Biden biting the hand that so generously fed him. The world so desperately needs another Teddy Roosevelt. The dangers to democracy, free speech and privacy are very extreme now.

    • A tiny class of billionaires imagine they can control American politics through control of the media and their buying power on TV ads, along with their enormous influence on political parties. Look how Bloomberg tried to buy the Florida election.

      Surely you’re missing the most important point about that, which is that it didn’t work?

      Where is the harm in billionaires ‘imagine they can control American politics through control of the media’? Lots of people imagine things that are not true. If it comforts them, why not let them have their delusions of control?

      Let them imagine they can do this. The important point, surely, is that they can’t.

      • But I think they did buy the Presidential election. The Democrats- supposedly the party of the working class and the poor – outspent the Republicans two to one, with about $1.8 billion dollars, chiefly from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. It didn’t work in Florida or South Carolina but overall the strategy did work. There is also the question of the control of information. It is essential to break monopolies and oligopolies if you are going to have a free society. It is intolerable that a single company should have more wealth and power than entire nations.

        • The Democrats- supposedly the party of the working class and the poor – outspent the Republicans two to one, with about $1.8 billion dollars, chiefly from Silicon Valley and Wall Street

          And they did exactly the same in 2016, Clinton’s campaign outspending Trump’s by the same factor. But that time the election went the opposite way.

          So I think the empirical evidence is that all that spending actually has very little effect on the result.

          Obviously it would be different if, say, one side could buy up all the airtime, and advertising space, thus preventing the other form getting its message out at all.

          It is intolerable that a single company should have more wealth and power than entire nations.

          Why? Lots of ‘entire nations’ are tiny. It’d be ridiculous to say that no single company should have more wealth and power than, say, Luxembourg.

          I would far rather wealth and power be in the hands of multiple corporations competing to best serve their customers, than in the hands of a government.

          Even if you take the worst possible view of companies, that they are robber barons out merely to increase their wealth, that’d still better that all that power being in the hands of a government; C. S. Lewis, as usual, put it best:

          ‘Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.’

          • Thanks S
            The Restoration saw the return of gaiety to olde England. Americans will probably cry “enough”, if Dominionists try too hard to cure America. Beware of perfect, inscrutable doctrine.

  8. Algorithms, which have the aura of impartiality, will always be unfair for some since they are based on probabilities.

    No they aren’t. At least, not as a rule. There are probabilistic algorithms, but they are a subset of all algorithms and not even a large subset. Dijkstra’s algorithm, Jarvis’s algorithm, and the Cohen-Sutherland algorithm are all examples of algorithms that have no statistical components whatsoever.

    This sentence rather suggests that whoever wrote it has no idea what an algorithm actually is. Unfortunately that would put them in the same class as almost all our politicians and civil servants.

    But while this obvious lack of understanding leaves one unlikely to have confidence in the technological part of the article, that is the less important part; a secondary point is to do with human nature and there also I’m afraid understanding seems to be lacking. For one thing the author seems to have bought into the ‘hidden persuaders’ narrative that advertising has some kind of magical mind-control powers that mean it can cause people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, to want things they wouldn’t otherwise want. Who, though, are the people who push this idea? Unsurprisingly, it is advertisers themselves who have an interest in making themselves out to be shadowy wizards with the power to cloud men’s minds.

    It is, however, not true. They can’t. No advertisement can make you buy anything or do anything or want anything. You have free will and are responsible for your choices; you can’t claim, ‘the adverts made me do it!’.

    The one point of the article which does have a point is the concern about the amount of data which is not available to track our movements and opinions, and how useful that would be to a totalitarian state. We already see the terrifying consequences of this playing out in China with its ‘social credit’ system, or in Korean where quarantines are enforced by electronic tracking.

    However, here the article gets things exactly backwards. This is not a problem with capitalism; in fact, it is capitalism, and specifically free-market competition, which ameliorates this problem by making sure that the government doesn’t have a monopoly on such data collection and storage (and indeed the flow of information; it is because all information flows are under the control of the government that something like China’s Great Firewall is possible, in a way it wouldn’t be in a country where customers are free to choose their information supplier and suppliers compete with each other to provide access to more complete information).

    • You have a hopeful and rather idealistic view of human freedom. I hope (!) You are right but I’m not so optimistic. A discerning mind has to be cultivated because prejudice and ignorance are native to human nature, along with the desire to learn, and which instinct is stinger in a visually dominated world of factoids? My preference has always been for a classical type of liberal education, stressing the great books, understanding logic and grounded in Christian humanism. My schooling gave me this part and for the rest of my life I have striven to fill it. But I know I’ve always been in a minority.
      The grave danger in the west today is that censorship, once abhorred by the left (principally in their struggle for sexual permissiveness and against Christianity) is now their favourite project. The left is now in the vanguard of promoting censorship across the western world, and because the left dominated the ownership of the internet and social media, this is where they flex their muscle.

      • But I know I’ve always been in a minority.

        Do you even realise how patronisingly supercilious you sound?

        ‘Oh of course advertising doesn’t affect me, with my discerning mind and my liberal education; but what about all those dumb, uneducated plebs out there? Oughtn’t we to be worried about what the advertisers could be doing to their minds, with their ignorance that their prejudices?’

        The grave danger in the west today is […] censorship

        And in this you are correct… but do you not have at least the self-awareness to see that the exact argument the left gives for the necessarily of their censorship — that the masses of humanity are dumb, uneducated, naturally predisposed to bigotry, fundamentally undiscerning, and so what ideas they are exposed to must, for their own good, be carefully curated by their moral an intellectual superiors — is exactly the view you have just outlined yourself?

        • Supercilious? Moi? I think you missed the words “I have striven”. We classicists (now there’s a minority!) always remind ourselves of the Delphic admonition “gnothi seauton” and we Hebraists (an even smaller minority outside Israel) remind ourselves that “the fear of Yhwh is the beginning of wisdom”. I try to preach all my sermons to myself first. Lay off the ad hominem, S, until you know me better (or worse).

          • Lay off the ad hominem

            There was no ad hominem. I pointed out that your claim that you are more able to resist the pernicious effects of advertising because of your education was supercilious; it is, because it rests on suggesting that you are in a superior position to the majority of people. I pointed out that the view that the majority of people need to be protected from advertising was patronising; it is.

            In both cases I was addressing the argument, not the one making it. Playing the ball, not the man.

            I also not you have not at all addressed the point that the argument you are making is identical to the one the left makes to justify censorship.

            If you would like to address my points — as I did — rather than falsely claiming ad hominem, and to argue that even though your views are supercilious and patronising they are nonetheless true, then you are at liberty to do so. Otherwise we must assume you cannot rebut them.

    • you must assume I have better things to do with my time

      You didn’t have better things to do than make totally unfounded allegations of ad hominem arguments, though, did you?

      I’m sure if you actually have any good arguments you would find time to make them. Therefore…


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