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Surveillance capitalism, surveillance culture and data politics

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Surveillance capitalism, surveillance culture and data politics

Abstract

Everyday life in the twenty-first century is unavoidably surveillant, especially in the increasingly data-dependent global north but with parallel effects in the south. Surveillance has become a dominant aspect of interactions with governments, corporations, and indeed any and all organizations. It is part of everyday experience, interaction, involvement, and initiative, not least through internet and social media use. Surveillance is rapidly becoming part of a whole way of life, seen in mundane imaginaries and practices such as complacent data donation or social ranking. But these are not innocent cultural developments; they echo and embody an emerging stage of political-economic development, ‘surveillance capitalism.’ Led by giant internet corporations such as Google, this phenomenon promotes data capture and analysis as the new fuel for prosperity and progress. If this conjunction is correctly stated, it raises profound questions of social relationships, for ethics, the politics of data and everyday life.
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Forthcoming in Bigo, D., Isin. E., and E. Ruppert (eds) (2019) Data Politics: Worlds, Subjects, Rights.
Routledge.
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CHAPTER!4!
Surveillance!Capitalism,!Surveillance!Culture!and!Data!Politics
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David Lyon
Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada
Abstract
Everyday life in the twenty-first century is unavoidably surveillant, especially in the
increasingly data-dependent global north but with parallel effects in the south. Surveillance has
become a dominant aspect of interactions with governments, corporations, and indeed any and
all organizations. It is part of everyday experience, interaction, involvement, and initiative, not
least through internet and social media use. Surveillance is rapidly becoming part of a whole
way of life, seen in mundane imaginaries and practices such as complacent data donation or
social ranking. But these are not innocent cultural developments; they echo and embody an
emerging stage of political-economic development, ‘surveillance capitalism.’ Led by giant
internet corporations such as Google, this phenomenon promotes data capture and analysis as
the new fuel for prosperity and progress. If this conjunction is correctly stated, it raises
profound questions of social relationships, for ethics, the politics of data and everyday life.
Introduction*
A surveillance scandal involving Facebook exploded in 2018. In 2015 a political consulting
company, Cambridge Analytica (CA), specializing in influencing voters, obtained access to
personal data mined from 87 million Facebook users (Davies 2015). A Cambridge University
social psychologist named Aleksandr Kogan built an app to harvest data from unwitting
Facebook users. They were asked to take a survey from which psychological profiles were
constructed and intended to predict their behaviour. The users were unaware that the data would
gain access to their friends, or that another company, CA, was involved.
It was revealed that 270,000 Americans took the survey, enabling Kogan and his colleague,
Alexander Nix, to develop a model predicting the personalities of all adult US citizens, that
was then passed to CA. It is unclear which data were used, but CA worked for Ted Cruz and
then for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election campaign. Steve Bannon, who was to
be Trump’s White House Chief Strategist for the first seven months of his presidency, was on
CA’s board and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Republican Party supporters, backed CA
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financially. As for Facebook users, they were unaware that data from them and their friends
were being used for these purposes.
The news about these activities did not fully break until 2018, when a Canadian, Chris Wylie,
who used to direct research at CA, turned whistleblower and informed The Guardian, which
on March 21 published details of what had happened, based on documents from CA. This
prompted government hearings in the UK, USA – featuring Facebook’s founder, Mark
Zuckerberg among others -- and in Canada in April 2018. And it also generated a storm of
outrage and interest in Facebook’s activities, particularly over privacy of users’ data, that had
repeatedly been the subject of controversy almost since Facebook was founded. A
#deletefacebook hashtag appeared, attracting much attention, and inquiries about how to
remove oneself from Facebook grew rapidly, especially in the UK and Canada.
All this represents a new departure for studies of surveillance, an important marker of
something that has been simmering under the surface for a number of years but finds concrete
expression in the 2018 Facebook scandal. The key to this is that the internet is a surveillance
space that is inherently fluid, liquid (Bauman and Lyon 2013). Such liquidity tends to blur
boundaries, flowing across previously assumed activities and categories. For some time, for
instance, the categories ‘online and offline’ have seemed less and less salient to how people
actually spend their daily lives. While these refer to distinct experiences – touch and smell, for
example, are not yet available online – much of life is in fact lived ‘on the internet,’ in almost
constant contact with, or finding out about, others who are not physically present. The latter
category is especially interesting, because not only do people encounter and experience online
surveillance, they also engage with it. This is ‘social surveillance’ (Marwick 2012).
This happens because the internet has become a surveillant space that also smudges the
distinctions between monitoring and tracking activities of security agencies, police and
corporate marketers and advertisers on the one hand, and the surveillance initiatives of
everyday life, on the other. What security agencies, police and corporate marketers do is hard
to discern, for a number of reasons, including agency and commercial secrecy. But everyday
surveillance is not well researched yet, either. Finding out about others, or ‘social surveillance,’
has many faces, from the relatively benign searches for classmates or potential romantic
partners, to surveillance of groups and individuals that some wish to ‘name and shame’ through
forms of ‘digital vigilantism’ (Trottier 2017).
Surveillance data are thus key to the functioning of the internet; they are part of what constitutes
the internet at every level. They make possible many activities, both those that become visible
in public scandals such as that affecting Facebook as well as those that are as yet relatively
unknown. The internet, including surveillance data, also facilitates debates over surveillance
activities, and over data themselves, thus also becoming an intrinsic dimension of the politics
of surveillance, and of the internet itself. It is some of these complex inter-relations between
the surveillance that characterizes large global organizations and surveillance involving the
mundane activities of everyday life that now have to be explored if contemporary kinds of
surveillance are to be understood. An important question is this: under what circumstances are
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the politics of data normalized or radicalized? And how do ordinary users’ practices make a
difference?
To paint with a broad brush, I shall frame this discussion in terms of two wide-ranging
concepts, surveillance capitalism and surveillance culture. The first is associated with scholars
such as Shoshana Zuboff and Mark Andrejevic and the latter with figures such as Alice
Marwick and Anders Albrechtslund. I have also contributed to this research enterprise
(Albrechtslund 2008, Lyon 2017, 2018, Marwick 2012, Zuboff 2017). Both surveillance
capitalism and surveillance culture depend on data but often in different ways and with
different consequences. I shall show that surveillance capitalism is the source of the systems
that enable many aspects of surveillance culture, and that at present much that counts as
surveillance culture is supportive of surveillance capitalism. But this is not inevitable, as
evident in the case of the Facebook scandal of 2018. The conditions of possibility – surveillance
data in this case -- do not produce predetermined outcomes. Or so I shall argue.
Surveillance*Capitalism*
Let me turn to the first topic of the duo, surveillance capitalism. To focus on surveillance
capitalism is to note the ways that surveillance is moving more rapidly towards centre stage in
the political economy of the early twenty-first century. It is to grasp the immense power and
profitability of personal data and to see why not only corporations but government departments,
health-care systems, educational establishments and of course policing and security initiatives
are so eager to follow the Big Data bandwagon into new realms of user-transparency,
efficiency, productivity and power.
Facebook is a prime example of a surveillance capitalism corporation. What came to be called
social media was in its infancy at the century’s turn. Friendster, founded in Kuala Lumpur in
2002, was a social gaming site and MySpace, started in 2004 and the largest platform anywhere
until 2010 were the best-known players. Facebook began, as Zuckerberg relishes relating, in
his Harvard dorm room and quickly grew to be the mega-corporation that it is today. Critical
to its success were the invention of Facebook ‘friends’ from whose data assumptions can be
made about whole groups and population segments with similar characteristics. Similarly, the
‘like’ button innovation that enabled users to approve and rate others’ contributions, to engage
in impression management and identity construction, and, crucially, also permitted Facebook
to track users as they move from site to site, thus accruing more and more data.
Thus Facebook ‘connects’ users with other acquaintances, family members, groups and so on,
as heavily advertised from the beginning. But it also connects users with unseen others – the
data brokers, developers, advertisers, political campaigners and snake-oil vendors that pay
Facebook for data about these valuable connections. This is Facebook’s business model, which
falls squarely into the surveillance capitalism category. People are attracted to the site and
encouraged to spend more and more time there so that their attention, their interests, the details
of their daily lives, may be sold to the highest bidders. As data are donated, unwittingly, or at
least only vaguely perceived, by users, so the data are used to profile those users and their
friends and acquaintances, including those with no Facebook account. As with all social media,
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these interactions with the site are the source of value. And their aim is not merely to predict
but also to shape lives and lifestyles.
The idea of connecting people sounds innocuous and attractive. Two billion users and more
rely on Facebook for a host of connections and it clearly meets needs, including those needs
engineered by Facebook’s psychologists. However, there have been strong indications, from
the outset, that Facebook’s aims were not limited to their lofty social aspirations to connect
users ‘with those whom we love. As one player in the current scandal, Sandy Parakilas, a
former data manager for Facebook, put it when asked about the privacy concerns of users:
Facebook ‘…prioritizes the growth of users, the growth of the data they can collect and their
ability to monetize that through advertising… [;]…those …are the metrics that the stock market
cares about’ (Stahl 2018). To understand surveillance capitalism better, however, we must turn
to Shoshana Zuboff.
Zuboff holds an important place in Surveillance Studies, for her 1988 analysis, In the Age of
the Smart Machine. Her brilliant finding was not just that automation allows machines to
lighten the load on labour and to capture and develop within software skills previously
perfected by human beings but that the deep difference lies in the ways that automation also
informates. The application of information technology makes the tasks more transparent to
managers who can use their enhanced knowledge to control more precisely the way work is
done. The workplace thus becomes more intensively surveillant.
Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) describes in more detail the
emergence of ‘surveillance capitalism’ that builds on but goes far beyond the argument of
‘Smart Machine.’ Here is doggedly persistent social research at its best. Animated by Google’s
business model, as found in the work of Hal Varian (Google chief economist), it is the source
of Google’s massive value of over $600B (Apple is $750B+; Microsoft: $521B; Amazon
$433B; Facebook: $420B). Zuboff’s work depends on extensive interviews with all the key
leaders of the big five internet corporations – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple
– and produces a very large scale analysis of the phenomenon that is breathtaking in its scope
and boldness. Surveillance capitalism evidences several key features.
Google’s secret of profitability is what Zuboff describes as “unilateral surveillance and
behaviour modification” (Zuboff 2016).
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It sells real-time access to everyday life, aiming to
change behaviours at scale, through data capture, analysis, and reward/punishment. The logic
of accumulation determines what is measured or ignored and how resources are allocated.
Computer mediation “now means that the world is visible, knowable and shareable in a new
way” (Zuboff 2015, 76)
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It is corporations that gain access to everyday life and today this
exempts almost no one in societies dependent on digital infrastructures. There is no transaction
with users or consumers, however. Straight extraction is all that occurs at that level. The trade
in data is entirely between large corporations.
Going beyond some other authors (e.g. Boltanski and Chiapello 2018), Zuboff concludes that
this adds up to a new logic of capital accumulation, far beyond old supply and demand
approaches that, she argues, up until the recent past tied capitalism more or less to population
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needs. It is characterized, she avers, by a combination of digital dependence, indifference and
neoliberalism. It uses prediction to eliminate uncertainty, that may produce anxiety if not other
emotions. But it also undermines social trust, cohesion, familial bonding, and binding contracts
and promises. As she warns, it finally severs those already frail and frayed relationships
between capitalist corporations and their employees, their consumers and their users.
The key dimensions of surveillance capitalism are as follows: (i) multiple data sources are
exploited, pervasively recording everything. StreetView, is a key example, which has, of course
led to protest and legal action in several countries. Another is Sidewalk Labs, currently making
a bid to revitalize a whole area of derelict wharves on the Toronto waterfront, reviving the
district “from the internet up” as Alphabet, for Google, puts it (Economist 2018); (ii) data
extraction occurs, a one-way process, lacking relationship or structural responsibilities yet
dependent on “signals of subjectivity” (Zuboff 2015, 79). Extraction sums it up. Ordinary
internet users have no say. Data are expropriated without permission (unless one counts ‘terms
of use’) or apology. The “formal indifference” to users and consumers is visible right here, and
to employees, in physical plants such as Amazon’s in Seattle where making impossible
demands on workers is how managers themselves define their task (Kantor and Streitfeld
2015); and, (iii) analytics means authority (spiritual) is supplanted by technique (material),
producing “anticipatory conformity.”
Google was one of the first to use analytics to increase the relevance of ads to users but also,
crucially, to repurpose the growing cache of behavioural data especially after the advent of
social media. The market exchange, as noted above, is not with those users but with other
corporations. The term “data exhaust” downplays the reality of what is being captured from
users but in reality, argues Zuboff, it is “behavioural surplus” (Zuboff 2016) For her, this
mirrors geographer David Harvey’s argument concerning “accumulation by dispossession”
(Harvey 2004). In so doing, even rights are erased, creating basic threats to both dignity and
democracy.
With such a dramatically successful development within capitalism it is all too easy to succumb
to complacency or cynicism – what can be done in the face of such accelerating new logics of
accumulation and data dependence? The corporations involved are indeed the highest valued
on the planet and the impunity with which they operate is staggering. These factors should not
be minimized. Yet to ask only such questions is to ignore those who experience surveillance in
everyday life and whose responses are far from monochrome. “Anticipatory conformity” may
well express part of the response and certainly, much of the everyday world of surveillance
experience shadows surveillance capitalism, such that doing surveillance on others using social
media, or on oneself, through self-tracking using wearables, does occur.
Of course, as a number of analysts has argued, the dominant world of surveillance capitalism
pulls many into its seductive force-field. And, equally true, we have all been exposed, for
decades, to the alluring sirens of consumerism, now in digital dress. The very concept of
freedom is pitifully reduced to individualistic self-determination and even to consumer choice
that even extends beyond mere purchasing. And, more specifically, dominant forms of big data
surveillance are echoed in the dominant aspects of surveillance culture. As I say, few seem to
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question what is happening and, apparently, little or no resistance is offered to the secondary
uses of people’s ‘behavioural surplus,’ the mundane, everyday data that our machines exude
constantly.
But there is also evidence, not only of dominant influences but also of residual and emergent
approaches (Williams 1977) in which older outlooks guide surveillance imaginaries and
practices, or newer ones offer forms of querying or resistance to surveillance. Much work has
been done on North America and Europe but studies of the Global South are also appearing,
demonstrating that surveillance capitalism is expanding its frontiers of accumulation. Also,
different age cohorts are represented here, but the two may also join forces for example in
privacy-promoting or digital activist groups such as those seeking open access, such as
OpenMedia in Canada. But to understand these, we have to consider another important concept,
surveillance culture.
Surveillance*Culture*
When I first worked in surveillance studies, more than 30 years ago, the key issues were
government – the ‘surveillance state’ – policing and workplace surveillance, often crystalized
in the iconic video camera. Computerization was well under way and this affected each of the
three areas, plus also in the use of credit cards, which began in the 1960s. Surveillance practices
became more prominent in the area of consumption but were experienced in tangible, paper-
based forms such as the rise of junk mail that targeted more and more specific groups of
consumers. Surveillance was spilling over the rims of its previous containers and talk of
‘surveillance society’ began in the mid-1980s and took hold by the turn of the century as these
practices became more pervasive.
But by the first decade of the twenty-first century things were changing again. The new
technologies – seen especially in so-called dot-com companies, were faring badly. New
opportunities appeared following 9/11 as security industries went into a higher gear and soon
afterwards as social networking developed from MySpace and Friendster into the ‘social
media’ that are commonplace today. These are reflected in other activities, subtly at first, in
which ordinary citizens were invited to ‘say something’ about perceived security breaches, to
report ‘unusual’ events or objects, or to ‘tip off’ authorities on the one hand, and on the other,
as ordinary users of social media began to exploit the new possibilities, to check up on each
other in more direct ways and even to conduct private investigations into strangers’ lives. A
new ‘culture of surveillance’ was taking shape.
There are many ways of considering surveillance culture. On the one hand, it has to do with
the experience of surveillance in everyday life, as people negotiate ubiquitous cameras in
public and private spaces, pass through security areas such as those at airports, encounter
embedded surveillance in buildings, vehicles and proliferating devices, each of which collects,
stores, transmits, analyzes and acts on data. And on the other hand, surveillance culture exists
where people play a more active role. This may be changing personal practices in ‘watched’
public spaces such as streets, malls or airports or in new modes of checking up on the lives of
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others known and unknown using conventional search engines or more likely through social
media.
All these aspects of surveillance culture, whether the experiences of surveillance or
engagement with surveillance take their place within everyday surveillance imaginaries and
practices. The former are the way that actors see the world of surveillance and their part in it,
which includes a sense of how things should be and sets of warning bells when something
seems not quite right. We may expect, for instance, to be subject to have our bags checked at
the airport and perhaps to enter a biometric or have our hands swabbed. Equally, we anticipate
that certain online sites will require agreement with terms of service, or that the door will
remain locked if our entry card is not up-to-date or that the car will not start if our blood alcohol
level is too high.
Mundane surveillance practices work with this, such that people learn how best to get through
security without delay – people who think they may be thought of as Middle Eastern or Muslim
will plan this well in advance to click acquiescence with the terms of service regardless of
whether or not they were actually read, or to follow someone else through the security door
rather than use the appropriate entry card. In the world of social media, people are most likely
to check up on others known to them although about a third of American, British or Canadian
citizens will check up on strangers, despite the fact that such snoopers believe that these people
would be annoyed, upset or embarrassed if they knew (Smith and Lyon 2013).
Of course, surveillance culture is volatile, complicated, as a leading analyst, danah boyd
(2015), observes. To examine surveillance imaginaries, by which people envision the world of
surveillance and see their place within it, and their surveillance practices, which is how they
engage with surveillance, is to find a wealth of evidence of heterogeneity, not mere
homogeneity.
For a start, while a majority (in the US) have cellphones, around a quarter do not yet have a
smartphone (Pew Research Centre 2018). Also, context is crucial. Much evidence shows that
knowledge of surveillance is widespread but that only certain kinds of data gathering may be
viewed negatively. I may share my healthcare information with my doctor and some family
members, but be much more circumspect if I think that an insurance or pharmaceutical
company may seek to see it. This is not just a matter of caring more about watchers who are
known (friends, family) than unknown (corporate marketers). Many judge surveillance
practices (not necessarily recognizing them as surveillant) according to criteria not of “privacy”
but of “fairness” (Kennedy 2017) and act accordingly.
For a long time, much research has demonstrated that surveillance involves gathering data to
enable populations to be categorized so that different groups can be treated differently. This is
social sorting (Lyon 2003). Dominant forms, especially those using so-called big data, tend to
reinforce already existing disadvantage and marginalization. A fine example is Automating
Inequality by Virginia Eubanks (2018). And as a recent Data & Society report concluded,
‘Marginal populations may be subjected to increased surveillance by both public and private
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actors. If predictive algorithms deem them to be “at-risk,” they may be labeled as such and
further marginalized’ (Data & Society 2014).
The exclusionary impetus of surveillance as social sorting is thus augmented among those who
are already vulnerable in racialized, gendered, class-based and other categories. But even this
does not mean that the outcomes may be taken for granted. While vulnerable populations may
find their life-chances further restricted by big data practices, at the same time, ‘gaps in data
might be used to empower or assist groups rendered invisible by targeted data collection.’
Women on welfare will subvert surveillance in order to look after their children (Gilliom 2001);
brown-skinned air-travellers will perform for security in risk-reducing ways (Askeer 2017);
poorer people in the housing market will use real estate classifications to mitigate their position
(Burrows and Gane 2006); and smart phone users will exchange SIM cards for different
purposes. Surveillance practices are manifold.
Situating*surveillance*culture,*surveillance*capitalism*
To speak of surveillance culture and surveillance capitalism is clearly to engage in large-scale
social analysis relating to twenty-first century surveillance. To begin, surveillance culture
requires that common definitions of surveillance have to be stretched. Conventional definitions
often start from an ‘operator’ perspective that sees surveillance as something that happens to
social actors, whether negotiating airport security, walking down the street under the gaze of
cameras, or becoming aware that using Instagram and WhatsApp on those smartphones means
that personal identity, preferences and whereabouts are known. But in fact, as I argue here,
surveillance is also something that people now engage with in daily life, sending images of
incidents to the police, installing home security systems, or checking up on others, including
strangers, using Facebook or some other social media platform. In everyday life, ordinary
people contribute to a growing culture of surveillance; watching is becoming a way of life.
In each case just mentioned, everyday surveillance is facilitated by relatively new technologies
that have proliferated in recent decades, even as surveillance has risen in cultural significance
due to its prominent use in government, corporate and security contexts. Surveillance cameras,
for example, were encountered increasingly in urban areas from the 1970s but especially from
the 1990s and thus became part of quotidian experience. For various reasons, CCTV systems
not only came to be viewed as viable means of combating crime and disorder and even of
providing safety on the street but were also marketed for domestic protection. In some Brazilian
cities, for instance, the issue is less public cameras ‘intruding’ on private spaces than privately
owned and operated cameras with capacities to watch public spaces (Firmino 2018). Thus, the
slide from rarely encountering to routinely experiencing and to regularly engaging with
surveillance cameras occurred. Surveillance is thus normalized and taken for granted, even
though debates persist at every level about its appropriateness and efficacy.
But these developments in surveillance culture occur in the same world characterized by the
political economic realities already discussed; ‘surveillance capitalism,’ in which
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contemporary data extraction is profoundly implicated. That is, for example, as users go online
to use Google, Facebook or even as academics ResearchGate (Lyon and Melgaço 2019),
scraps of data are sucked up as a vacuum cleaner sucks away detritus from rugs or sofas. But
this digital dust does not go to landfills. Someone Google was first! – saw value in it and now
it is monetized to make millions. In other words, the surveillance culture has an intimate and
mutually-informing relationship with surveillance capitalism. What is that relationship? As I
hinted earlier, the dominant aspects of surveillance culture often play into surveillance
capitalism, facilitating and normalizing it. And by the same token, much of surveillance culture
depends on and is nurtured by surveillance capitalism.
However, it is important to observe that focusing only on the operator aspects the vacuum
cleaning – or on the complacent and compliant aspects of surveillance culture can easily
produce a sense of hopelessness or at least, cynicism. The ‘operators’ will insist that the
technological changes shaping the digital era are really unstoppable and that not to be data-
driven is to miss out on efficiency and profitability or at least that law and regulation will never
‘catch up.’ And those comfortable with surveillance culture will say that its convenience and
efficiency in making desired connections with others is worth any minor quibbles about things
like privacy or civil liberties.
To counteract the sense that nothing can be done I note that analyses of everyday surveillance
imaginaries and practices (Taylor 2004) – ‘surveillance culture’ – indicate that in fact a variety
of responses is possible and, increasingly, visible. True, some shrug off the sucking up of data
as something inconsequential; who cares? But beyond such dominant modes are residual
approaches that question users donating data with no apparent return (Andrejevic 2013), and
emergent modes that try to resist by arguing for new forms of regulation or by using technical
means in digital judo moves (Dupont 2008). In the mid-twentieth century, some early studies
of TV feared the growth of propaganda and the negative impact of the new medium, that
‘cultivated’ viewers. But more subtle studies showed just how much ‘critical viewers’ also
exist, reading the news or interpreting the shows in myriad ways. Arguably, something similar
is happening now, in relation to the digital and to surveillance. It is consonant with Engin Isin
and Evelyn Ruppert’s observation, that while some internet users see themselves as simply
subject to power, others believe that they can make a difference. They are subjects of power
(Isin and Ruppert 2015).
What these authors note, in Being Digital Citizens, is this. While ‘subjects’ is a useful and
illuminating word, it has to be thought of in two ways at the same time. People are subjects to
power in that everyday lives are profoundly affected positively and negatively by data and the
internet – particularly, as argued here, by surveillance capitalism. But simultaneously people
are subjects of power in that they may demonstrate subversive as well as submissive behaviours
in online life -- or ‘onlife’ (Floridi 2015). Digital citizens come into being, in part, as data
politics begin to form themselves in recognizable ways. Our very relationship as citizens in
digitally dependent societies is now mediated by the internet and by data. And as ‘digital
citizens’ make rights claims about those data, they do so prompted and provoked into self-
governing and by attempting to exert political influence through such claims. Thus while
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today’s strategies of power are already being emulated by others in subordinate positions they
are also evaded, questioned and subverted by everyday tactics.
Data*Politics*and*an*Optics*of*Hope*
Having tried to make the case for seeing together the two phenomena of surveillance capitalism
and surveillance culture, I turn towards a more normative conclusion. I want to press the
foregoing argument further. For a meaningful data politics to emerge, it would seem that human
dignity and especially agency need not only to be seen in diverse responses to surveillance
capitalism but also to be reasserted and encouraged. Given the manifest disrespect for dignity
and fairness suffered under surveillance capitalism, indignation should rightly feature as an
aspect of such social analysis. Surveillance capitalism and surveillance culture cannot simply
be studied dispassionately, however carefully and accurately the social data are presented. They
affect identities, how people see and present themselves (subjectivities), life chances, the ways
that opportunities open or close depending on the consumer and other categories in which,
today, everyone is placed (social sorting) and democratic participation, or how far we can vote
or whether or not that vote makes a difference (politics). In other words, human life is in many
ways put concisely, in relation to subjectivities, social sorting and struggle negatively
affected by surveillance capitalism.
Indignation is necessary but not sufficient, however. Analytically, the work of Michel de
Certeau (1984) opens doors to a more hopeful sociology of surveillance for the twenty-first
century. While he freely acknowledges the strategies of power visible in late modern consumer
capitalism he urges that attention also be focused on the tactics visible in everyday life tactics
that do not simply mirror the dominant political economy, in our case, of surveillance
capitalism. In the present context, this means paying careful attention to surveillance
imaginaries and practices. These include the repurposing of technologies beyond what was
envisioned by their designers, resisting social media marketing and finding fresh ways of using
media for instance, by accenting quality, not quantity. For example, Catchpool whose
tagline is ‘catch the best, leave the rest’ – reduces mere noise for the sake of valuable forms of
sharing, or Mighty Networks produces and distributes customizable tools for people to create
their own networks (Laurenson 2016).
As so often, reminders are needed that de Certeau’s tactics may operate at many levels. There
are the everyday online interactions in which micro-responses to surveillance capitalism – even
though it may not be named as such – occur and which, when magnified by social media, could
make a difference. But there are also more deliberate activities that turn simple responses into
rights claims and that, again, could be amplified by shared activities, this time through some
of the many rights-claiming groups now springing up to alert users to possible abuses and
remedies. These are often associated with groups that also have technical expertise to assist
those with none, to clarify their claims and their targets. The tactics may also be associated
with more conventional and formal rights claims, made in relation to privacy and data
protection legislation. All these need to be filled out with in-depth research, but of their
existence there is little doubt. And moments such as the Facebook-Cambridge-Analytica
scandal, as the moment of the Snowden disclosures or the post-9/11 security surveillance
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overreach, are critical ones for the discovery that what seemed to be personal problems are
shared public issues.
Here, I am not so much prescribing ways forward as proposing some open questions about
where surveillance culture is heading and how some emerging trends might channel it in fresh
ways. Contemporary cultural developments may foster human flourishing. Even a recent
British report on data management couches its aims as the pursuit of human flourishing (Royal
Society 2017). Along with a quest for fairness – for instance in the Cardiff University research
group dedicated to ‘data justice’ both would-be responsible consumers and wider human
rights groups assert more human scale approaches against tendencies towards a colder and
more calculating surveillance capitalism.
This is where I believe that the notion of utopia-as-method (Levitas 2016) is instructive. This
is not the familiar fictional accounts of idealized worlds, but rather, critical accounts of current
cultural directions. These also act as potential means of proposing and promoting alternative
futures that embody holistic, reflexive and democratic imaginaries and practices. In other
words, utopia-as-method contributes to the common good as shared values – chosen wisely, by
conviction and conscience, not consumer criteria – especially in relation to rights and
responsibilities. One area that such shared understandings develop is in the realm of popular
cultural forms, including utopias and dystopias.
The commonest metaphors in surveillance culture today still come from Big Brother, now
largely rendered obsolete – in its details, not in its humane thrust – by the rise of surveillance
capitalism. But this does not mean either that Orwell is irrelevant or that other metaphors and
memes are unavailable. They may be found, for instance, in some older fiction such as Lord of
the Rings or in the contemporary utopian/dystopian fiction of The Circle and of TV series such
as Black Mirror. The task of the social sciences, alongside some very well-informed
contributors to literary criticism (Rosen and Santesso 2013, Marks, 2015) should try to
understand how the new metaphors are mobilized as means of comprehending and acting in
relation to surveillance.
Surveillance capitalism is a newly dominant social, economic and political formation. But to
understand surveillance only in those terms is to see it from an exclusively operator perspective.
Raising awareness about its actual mode of operation and its erosion of relationships and rights
is a vitally worthwhile task. However, also considering possible tactics that might destabilize
or deflect some of its consequences will set the tone for a struggle that is already under way. It
is unclear how the 2018 Facebook debacle will play out. However, the very fact of raised
consciousness and widespread, publicly discussed uncertainty about the balance between the
pros and cons of involvement with Facebook is a sign that data hegemony is far from complete,
and of the ongoing volatility of surveillance capitalism.
Seeking workable alternatives as well as promoting limits to the expectations of 24/7 access
the ‘always-on’ phenomenon – alongside the increasing pressure to find acceptable modes of
regulating social media could mean that a turning point is being reached. Looking at the
everyday life of surveillance as it is experienced, imagined and practiced – surveillance culture
12
offers not just a complementary and necessary perspective than the rather too prevalent
paranoia, complicity and defeatism associated with the critique of social media and surveillance
capitalism, but the potential for an optics of hope. Why? Because the symbiotic growth of
surveillance capitalism and culture will only be interrupted if the latter becomes more
conscious of itself and more willing to ask basic questions: Do we really need this? How does
it contribute to the common good and human flourishing? If those cultural questions, relating
to how we actually live our lives, generate a fresh data politics green shoots of which are
already appearing – then those hopes will begin to be realized.
Notes
1
Earlier versions of this chapter were presented at ASA Montreal August 2017; Universidade Federal do Rio de
Janeiro October 2017; CICC atelier Université de Montréal, Nov 2017; IAS Loughborough University Nov 2017.
Brief version for the Saturday Club, Kingston, May 2 2018.
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