Shoshana Zaboff, retired Harvard professor, argues that “privacy is over”
Social psychologist Shoshana Zaboff, 71 years old, is an unavoidable figure among those who think about the internet since she launched in 2019 a book that changed the way of seeing large corporations in Silicon Valley: “The Era of Surveillance Capitalism”. A retired professor at the Harvard Business School, Shoshana defends the idea that big techs got rich by stealing user data.
According to her, we live “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for underhand commercial practices of extraction, forecasting and sales”. She created the concept of “surveillance capitalism” in 2015, building on researcher Jaron Lanier’s idea that when a service is free, you are the product.
Shoshana is pessimistic about the possibility of controlling the big techs so that they stop practicing irregularities, manipulations and crimes. Even in crisis, with losses exceeding US$ 1 trillion in 2022, they won because they managed to galvanize the idea that your personal data is worthless, an idea similar to that of the colonialists about forests. “Privacy is gone. It’s like a zombie”he said in an interview with the British newspaper Financial Timesreleased this Monday (30.jan.2023).
Two data cited by her in the interview show that data theft is not a phenomenon “natural” from Internet. In the United States, where there is no data protection law, people have their location exposed 747 times a day. In the European Union, where such a law has existed since May 2018, that number drops to 376 times a day.
As big techs fight the creation of a data protection law in the United States because they believe that it would be copied around the world and would end with one of the most lucrative methods of making money in the 21st century. The fingerprints of Silicon Valley companies appear every time a project of law is introduced in the US Congress: they are champions in lobbying spending. The top 5 US tech companies spent $69 million on federal lobbying in 2022. While all revenues were down in 2022, spending on politicians grew 5% year-over-year.
Shoshana thinks there is an additional problem. According to her, while corporations act with the sole objective of avoiding regulation, researchers are divided into fields that seem to irritate her. She calls this dispersion “balkanization”.
“We have fantastic professors, researchers, activists who are focused on privacy, others are focused on disinformation and there are still those who are focused on the nexus with democracy”, it says. This multiplicity, argues the retired teacher, reduces the ability to reach the “source of damage”which would be the use of personal data without cost and without authorization.
Shoshana is one of the internet’s thought-provoking global stars, but she seems to have become too enamored with the concept she created. The idea that all of the internet’s problems derive from the violation of users’ private data seems increasingly precarious. The European Union, cited by the researcher as an example of regulation, faces growing problems of fake news both in the political field and in the universe of vaccines.
Brazil has a LGPD (General Data Protection Law), in force since September 2020, but its existence seems to have been innocuous in combating misinformation in elections.
This apparently has nothing to do with the data mining that Facebook, Google and Amazon do.
She is a good phrase writer. One of my favorites is: “We think we are searching with Google, but Google searches us”. Another sentence from her: “It is possible to have surveillance capitalism. It is possible to have democracy. But you can’t have it both ways.”. I like researchers who create succinct and clear ideas as if they were poets.
His seminal book, however, seems to be aging poorly. the notion of “surveillance capitalism” seems more suited to a totalitarian tool, not a service in which users hand over their data without blinking in exchange for a few “likes”. Despite having lived at the end of the Renaissance, the French philosopher Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563) seems to have more to say on this issue with his idea of “voluntary servitude” than Shoshana. Montaigne’s friend La Boétie must be too profound for the Harvard Business School. Bad luck for them.
The book captured the leap in gains that was the theft of personal data, but it seems to have very little to say about disinformation and the threat to democracy, 2 problems that are growing by the day.
It would be foolish, however, to dismiss an author who has mesmerized researchers with the idea of “surveillance capitalism”. Two ideas she exposes in the interview seem to illuminate areas that remain opaque. One of these ideas is that big techs are hedging their new bets by filing fewer patent applications. The explosion of artificial intelligence applications since the end of 2022 seems to prove Shoshana right. Another charge of hers is that researchers need to know better the technological intricacies of big techs to better regulate them by means of laws.