Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism: Implications for Africa tech policy

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica

“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power” by Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, was an exhausting read. Hitherto, I had not read any book by the author. And even as I appreciate, with the benefit of hindsight of course, how well grounded the book and the author are, I got exasperated at some point to be honest. I wondered about the myriad abstractions and theorizing by the author. But it was worth it in the end.

This is not an attempt to preach patience as virtue. Zuboff could not have been extremely convincing as she was without the firm foundation she laid for making her point. And in the end, you are left with no doubt, you are compelled in fact, to accept all she wrote as truth. And quite frankly, I am yet to find a convincing rebuttal to her assertions.

Zuboff’s principal argument is that big tech wants you. All of you. Everything. You, the individual, are neither the product nor the customer. You are raw material. Yes, you. According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” She provides eight definitions and is most damning in the eighth: surveillance capitalism is “an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.”

By her own admission, Zuboff’s life work has become about finding the answer to the question “Can the digital future be our home?” She contrasts the hitherto industrial future of yore that left many victims in its wake from pollution, climate change, and so on, because voices were not raised on time or high enough. Her main argument is that unlike the carte blanche that industrial capitalists literally had, surveillance capitalists must not be similarly watched in silence.

Zuboff’s conclusion is instructive: “The Berlin Wall fell for many reasons, but above all it was because the people of East Berlin said, ‘No more!’. We too can be the authors of many ‘great and beautiful’ new facts that reclaim the digital future as humanity’s home. No more! Let this be our declaration.” In other words, the digital future will not be our home without a fight. But is this a fight Africa should join?

Knowing you pays
To properly put Zuboff’s views in proper perspective would require defining a lot of terms. Not that she didn’t throw in simplifications here and there. But quite frankly, her tome was not an easy read. To simplify, I present her logic as she did and then simplify it based on my own understanding: “Google [and other surveillance platforms like Facebook and Microsoft]…discovered a way to translate its nonmarket interactions with users into surplus raw material for the fabrication of products aimed at genuine market transactions with its real customers: advertisers.”

Put simply, big tech or surveillance capitalists profit from the human experience. To this end, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other surveillance platforms seek and store behavioural data in excess of that ordinarily required for the products and services they purport to provide. The suggestion is not that Google does not provide a search service or Facebook a social media platform. Of course, they do. What Zuboff asserts it that these are not the real ends of surveillance platforms. Instead, they are means to the end of what she termed “behavioural surplus;” that is behavioural data beyond what is ordinarily required in the normal course of their businesses as we know it.

In other words, surveillance platforms are simply that: surveillance platforms. They gather data on everything about you. And because of their scale, they are thus able to gather data on virtually everyone. Consequently, over time they know you well enough to predict your future decisions and actions with almost perfect accuracy. As firms would be willing to pay for such knowledge to better sell their products, surveillance platforms are thus able to earn “surveillance revenues” that translates to “surveillance capital,” the logic of which is “surveillance capitalism,” which thus underpins the “surveillance economy.” (Now I am not so sure this is even a simple enough explanation.) Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others make money from knowing you. That is simple enough, I think.

Free rein
With advocacy and activism by probably Zuboff and others, and certainly in light of recent privacy scandals and increased realisation of the huge power big tech increasingly wields, however, it would not be farfetched to reckon surveillance platforms are already planning ahead to ensure they would continue to have free rein. That is, even as America and the West in general, though increasingly tightening the noose around the activities of big tech, still remain largely accommodative.

Still, it does not require a stroke of genius to know that there would likely be increasingly less room for surveillance capitalism to continue in its current form in the West, as awareness about their privacy breaches and likely even more egregious violations become writ large. So if you are an African, and armed with Zuboff’s robust exposition on the unarguably unscrupulous practices of surveillance platforms, you would be excused if you wondered that the increasing interest in Africa by big tech chief executives might not be unconnected to a search by them for virgin or more relaxed regulatory jurisdictions. If that is indeed the case, what should African governments do?

I think a balance would need to be struck. Because judging from Zuboff’s assertions alone, it would probably take a great deal of effort, even by the most advanced regulatory jurisdictions, to rein in the surveillance practices of big tech. But are the potential gains in jobs, technology transfer and so on, significant enough for Africans to make the trade-off? It is probably too late for that kind of sanctimony. Many Africans and almost all others have already signed out their privacy rights for the social benefits – if you choose to see it as such – of social media and the broader internet.

If Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others offer us Africans free internet, should we then reason that because we worry about our privacy, we should decline the offer? Surely not. But an awareness or knowledge of the trade-off would certainly put African governments in a better position to leverage surveillance platforms for better deals for sure. How so? Knowing that Google, Facebook and other surveillance platforms are not offering free internet to all Africans via satellite and other means out of the goodness of their hearts, African governments could with greater confidence make more robust demands, like greater investments, insistence on technology transfer, etc., that would make the trade-off not entirely seem like a rip-off.

Pay us for our data
Zuboff scoffs at the commoditisation refrain of how the “users [of surveillance platforms] receive no fee for the raw materials they provide.” Her thesis is that what the platforms take away from individuals is far more valuable and priceless to be reduced to a fee. But is this something we should care about as Africans? We lost out on industrial capitalism; not that we really had much of a choice in the matter back then. Now, in the current internet age, however, we do have relatively more say.

So, should we allow sanctimony about privacy and human rights by Zuboff and others stop us from extracting as much gains as possible from information capitalism? The question has a striking resemblance to how Africa is now expected to be conscious of climate change, the negative aftermath of industrial capitalism, the gains of which Africa largely missed out on.

To be clear, Zuboff’s arguments resonate with me a great deal as much as that about climate change. But for us Africans, the choice is not so simple. Because unlike westerners, who are in relative comfort and are probably motivated by a desire to maintain the ease they currently enjoy for much longer, we Africans are still struggling to come out of the doldrums.

In any case, since there is probably not much African governments can do to make surveillance platforms change their ways, we could as well ask that they pay us for the raw material – our data in this case – we provide. And considering the ever increasing noise on the merits and demerits of a universal basic income, isn’t there a chance to do so for the poorest of the world from the humongous revenues of surveillance capitalists? I think there is an opportunity here for Africa’s poor. African governments should seize it.

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