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The current imperative of fluidity is a reduction of the world to become: movement of capital, flow of desire or gender, disruptive innovation, nervous activism. This fluidity is also manifested in the surveillance capitalism that forces personal information to flow through all things.
This fluidity is incompatible with two forms of border containment: the conscience of the individual and the law of States. To avoid the first, the consciousness of the individual, the individual-machine relationship takes the form of a prereflective psychological stimulus. To avoid the second, state law, surveillance capitalism relies on the technocratic superstition that innovation cannot wait for legal regulation. Consequently, the interests of the surveillance capitalists run almost without friction across the globe. However, is it not in the dignity of man and the common good to recover these borders?
The Shoshana Zuboff’s analysis of the economic exploitation of personal information flows. It defines surveillance capitalism as the “new economic order that claims human experience as a free raw material that can be used for a series of hidden business practices of extraction, prediction and sales.”
That new order emerged at Google during the so-called dot-com crisis at the turn of the century. Until then, the company lived, among other things, by selling its own technology to third parties. The income was separated from the data: it used the personal data of the users only to improve its services. However, the crisis urged him to find a different way to make money. This will be possible thanks to the so-called “leftover data”. This excess data is the “behavioral surplus” that remains with Google once the service is improved.
The behavioral surplus turns out to be the cornerstone of the new economic and social order. Since then Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon secretly take the experience of their users as raw material to produce behavioral predictions. This plunder has spread to many companies that are not information, not even technology, but know how profitable the surplus.
How big is this new economic order that includes the old Ford, a paradigm of mass production of things? Even a company that produces things needs to reclaim human experience, in this case of driving. How useful will it be to sell profiles with the personality – aggressive or fearful, careful or calm – of your drivers to an insurance policy?
Recover the digital environment
Many think that this economic order cannot be accepted, but how to get out of it? The initial step is to talk about it, make it a topic. The difficulty is that the issue is not immediately swept away by another, in accordance with the liquidity in which everything is nothing more than in action, in recent act or actuality. Shortly after being, it no longer exists. This difficulty makes a common response to the problem by civil society even more complicated, since it is not enough to turn it into an issue, it is necessary to awaken a concerted response.
Associationism is a possibility: joining others with the common purpose of limiting, for example, the use of TikTok among teenagers, Google services at work, etc., and all this, regardless of the public powers. Responses from civil society can push or accompany an institutional response.
If we think about legislative policy there are at least three problems that have to do with the effectiveness of solutions based on regulation. Prudential knowledge requires taking into account that, many times, it is better to pursue certain objectives indirectly. Doing it directly can lead to unwanted results by ignoring the relationships of a problem with the rest of reality.
Thus, certain prohibitions on surveillance capitalists can lead them to carry out with greater concealment what they used to do in plain sight. The second problem refers to the total asymmetry between the power of technology and that of the States. Does the latter have sufficient power to enforce a right limiting the surveillance business? The right is only effective if it can be fulfilled, ultimately, with the use of force. The third problem is the excess of current legislation that, many times, is not taken seriously even by the legislators themselves, is openly contradicted or is impossible for the jurist to know.
With the exception of the previous difficulties, proposals are offered to solve the problem divided by themes: data, design and market.
Declare that personal big data in the hands of surveillance capitalists was stolen taking advantage of the radical epistemological asymmetry between capitalists and users, with contempt for individual conscience and in total allegiances. Therefore, they act illegitimately in the power of the companies (and, where appropriate, of the institutions). This statement has a symbolic value that cannot be underestimated.
After the declaration there are two very different options. The first is the total erasure of big data. The second is to declare the big data Common Heritage of Humanity (as is nature), and entrust it to some world authority. The choice between the first or the second answer depends on whether we consider that the good that can be done with them outweighs the bad.
For data already legitimately processed after the surveillance economy it is necessary to implement fiduciary duties. It is about that anyone who wants to collect or save personal data acquires a duty of care with the subjects of the data. This is what happens, for example, with a relationship such as that of the doctor with the patient.
Ban anti-political algorithms. That is, those who break with the equality of opinions on the Internet and favor precisely what is anti-political, what destroys the polis: the tribal, hatred, sordid, etc. This avoids the hypocritical task of restricting the freedom of some in the aftermath, as happened with Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which was closed without sufficient justification. Who has made Twitter a referee to give or take the floor to whoever they want? This is even more bloody when its business model is anti-political and only adds to an unfair inequality (the algorithmic one) another inequality (that of the president who is not considered worthy of an opinion on Twitter). First, the fire is structurally caused and then symbolically comes to extinguish one of the burners.
Ban design that is structurally manipulative. An example is the I like it and one-click forwarding. These design options added in 2009 are directly linked to the severe mental crisis among adolescents a few years later. They simply look for behavioral surplus and that is why they have turned communication into psychological satisfaction, what is properly communicated is dopamine. For this reason, these options spoil the possibility of a rich digital communication not psychologized or narcissistic, the one that was possible before its implementation.
It is commonly said that the main problem is the business model. So much so that messaging applications that do not collect behavioral surplus in the form of big data (Signal and Telegram) are not profitable and work with donations. In short: it seems that you cannot make money if you act decently in the information society. So this is a structural problem, not accidental, but it can be fixed. Let’s see more proposals.
Expropriate the platforms because they are considered critical structures of society. This makes the problem of the business model disappear, but the difficulties of this solution seem insurmountable as there is a displacement of a private domain –which disregards social consequences in search of effective profit–, for a public domain that seeks certain social results. Can we expropriate without approaching the Chinese model?
Divide the big tech companies. They are gigantic: Google, for example, has bought more than 200 companies in its life time. The option to divide seems to reduce the problem to gigantism without taking into account that not only is its size harmful, it is its activity in the first place. So chopping up big tech seems like a bad solution. This would lead to broadening competition and strengthening the surveillance market.
Keep Apple on track. Tim Cook’s company could be key against surveillance capitalism if it follows the path of defending privacy that has generally characterized it. This would place it in front of the other giants – Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon – that, in that order, have installed themselves in surveillance. A different problem is the gigantism of the apple company and the others, a gigantism that is bad for everyone and that it is better to avoid indirectly, for example, by protecting local SMEs. Who has stopped Amazon from taking over world trade?
Do not start from the fact that innovation must be financed by system. It is intended that history runs precisely through the channels that lead one to make money: “Intimacy is dead,” Zuckerberg said. But our decisions count, and rather it will be necessary to relate innovation to human development. Not infrequently, with “innovation” the enrichment of a few and the unemployment of the majority is defended. For example, isn’t it better to “finance the man”, make hiring cheaper and not finance technology that could allow, among other things, surveillance (or mass unemployment)?
The fight against this subtle form of domination involves combating the evils associated with it. These are all idolatry of boundless movement and flow: narcissistic subjectivism, technocratic spirit, finance capitalism, or savage consumerism. In front of them we need borders that go through returning otherness to reality. That is, to assume the limit of the unavailable: the otherness of others, of the past, of things and of the law. All of these are frontier phenomena, brakes, that we must recover so that the world recovers the beautiful solidity that it once had.
The Canadian News
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