Presumably everyone will have “googled” via PC, tablet or smartphone. With this action, everyone automatically became part of what the American economist and emeritus professor of business administration at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Prof. Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, has called ‘surveillance capitalism’ since 2014. In her 727-page book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” published Oct. 2018 by Campus Verlag, Zuboff analyzes the fundamental system of Silicon Valley tech companies in capitalism.
When the Internet was still in its infancy in the 1990s, a few clever IT specialists had a sense of the huge potential of this new communication technology. In order to control the flood of data that grew with each passing day, search engines were developed. A kind of digital reference work, a gateway into the digital wide world, with which the user gets answers to all imaginable questions and at the same time could be advertised as a consumer. A real money printing machine that offers seemingly endless possibilities and at the same time enables ever more dangerous approaches.
The Data Crash Google
In addition to Lycos, Altavista, MetaGer, Yahoo and several other search engines, Google went online on September 15, 1997. The two computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed and programmed the project BackRub at Stanford University in California. The google search engine differed from the others in that the surface was largely empty, tidy and white, with only one search window, while the pages of the other providers were colorful and completely flooded with advertising, presented confusingly. Although Google’s interface hasn’t changed much to this day, the creators continued to develop the search engine and supplement it with several service offerings, apps and gadgets.
Although the search engine is still a core business, Google LLC (Limited Liability Company german) has become a tech giant for software and hardware solutions, as well as online trading and online advertising, which is listed on the stock exchange under the holding company Alphabet. According to Statista, Google’s market share as a desktop search engine worldwide was 73%, while in the mobile version for smartphones and tablets it was 94%. Alphabet’s published annual report for 2019 puts its annual revenue at USD 162 billion. 92 billion dollars come from advertising with Google-linked searches, and another 15 billion dollars from the revenue from YouTube commercials.
But how could Google prevail against the other competitors, which today only have a niche existence? Renting out the homepage as advertising space, just as all search engines did at the time, was not very innovative, because there was also striking advertising 100 years before. Hence Google’s decision to make its home page plain and free of advertising. Google recognized that the searches contained a lot of information that had nothing to do with the actual search.
How are words written correctly or misspelled in the search query? How are different terms combined? Where and when is something sought? How is the search result selected and how long is it staying where?
This resulted in “collateral behavioral data,” as Shoshana Zuboff calls it. Behavioral patterns and data left behind by its competitors as junk data sucked google into itself and fed its algorithms with this data. Initially only to optimize Google’s by-products, gadgets and apps. There was a give and take between the search engine and its user, from which both sides initially benefited. The user received optimized and constantly developed software that became easier and more user-friendly. Google, in contrast, received the search patterns and data to see what the customer wanted, thus constantly improving its services.
This is also noted by Mrs Zuboff in her analysis. Unlike all other search engine providers, Google diligently collected the data of its users and thus pioneered it. For what Ford was as a pioneer of mass production in capitalism (Fordism) is Google as a pioneer of data analysis and processing in capitalism. With Google Ads and Google Adsens, two service programs for advertising customers (adwords) were established. The user received marked advertisements that specialized in his search query. The adwords, on the other hand, decided for themselves how much remuneration should be paid to Google. The higher the remuneration, the higher the placement of the advertisement in the ranking of search results.
Google detected a lack of behavior in the searches, because one day there was a real Heureka experience at Google headquarters. The most wanted words were a combination of the words “Carol Brady’s maiden name”. There were obviously a lot of users looking for a reference from the 1970s TV show “The Brady Family”. How could that be? Who is interested in a TV series from the 70s at the beginning of 2000 and why so many at the same time? In the American edition of “Who Becomes a Millionaire,” that was exactly the question the candidate was asked. The viewers in front of the TV went after it. It was precisely from this observation that Google drew its conclusions. These users are all watching the show “Who Becomes a Millionaire”. From that point on, the data collections were no longer primarily used to optimize the search engine, but to exploit this user data in an advertising-relevant manner.
“I actually think that most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what to do next” (Eric Schmidt, Ex-CEO von Google, 14.10.2010 im Wall Street Journal)
This paternalistic statement by Schmidt is highly illiberal. For the real liberal basic idea is that all people should make their own decisions, even if they are objectively irrational or they deprive themselves of a positive effect through their decision. Everyone should have the opportunity to make their own decisions for themselves. Schmidt, on the other hand, simply says “no”, Google determines what people want and takes away the freedom of choice for all people. Such an attitude is the quintessence of surveillance capitalism.
Marx and the Internet
“The overarching pattern of surveillance capitalism is one of subordination and hierarchy, with the original interactions between the company and its users subordinated to the derived project. To record our excess behaviour for the goals of third parties. We are therefore not subjects of value realization, nor are we, as they keep claiming, the product sold by Google.” (Quote: Shoshana Zuboff)
This means that users are much more the objects from which Google illegally obtains the raw material for its predictive factories. And it is precisely this raw material that is used to manufacture Google’s products. Predictions about our behavior that Google does not sell to the user, but to third parties, the adwords. The user is the means to other people’s purpose. But what is the means of production in this surveillance capitalism?
In retrospect, 200 years ago, industrialisation made it clear that there is the machine, there is the fabric and it is woven. In the case of Google, this is no longer so easy to recognize. What is the means of production here? Is it the website with the search slot where the user enters his search terms? No, the means of production are the artificial intelligences that Google and other corporations such as Facebook and Amazon are developing. The more sophisticated and total these algorithms are designed, the more raw materials, in this case data, can be extracted for further processing and products can be formed from them. These are predictive products that give advertisers a great deal of certainty that their advertising will be targeted at the right customer.
One such possibility of prediction is the fundamental question of the advertising industry. Does my advertising even arrive? Is my advertisement in the newspaper on page 7 even perceived? Is the newspaper’s readership the target audience of my product? Such considerations raise major questions, as diffusion inevitably arises. Because there is a great danger that a large proportion of readers do not belong to the target clientele of the advertiser. And so, until now, the advertising industry had been “knocking rather than clattering”, which meant a much higher and more expensive use.
Now this realization is not very new, because somehow the user has always known or suspected it: Tech companies earn a pig money with our data. It makes it all the more clear that people have long since become accustomed to constantly surfing websites disguised as advertising platforms. This was quite different in the early days of the Internet. At the time, it was believed that more freedom was possible in the virtual world. It is possible to evade state and private control. The development towards surveillance capitalism, however, shows that we are monitored and analyzed much more extensively in the virtual world than in the analogue world.
Online giant Amazon is taking the same direction on this approach. When the mail order company, founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos in Seattle (Washington), initially counted as a small service provider, it grew into a global conglomerate. Like Google, Amazon’s creators recognized the potential of online services and the user data they extracted. One difference with Google, however, is that Amazon not only focused on the online business, but physically established its services in the real, analogue world.
Own parcel stations, large high-bay warehouses in the form of almost fully automatic shipping centres, own shops in the inner cities. In Germany alone, Amazon manages more than 50 logistics centers with approximately 20,000 employees and about 5,000 seasonal workers. All these expansions, which are increasingly detaching themselves from the core business itself, serve only one purpose: to enable Amazon to have a monopoly position and to permanently expand it. Through price wars and wage dumping, Amazon has managed to drive out, buy or simply destroy various competitors from the online and offline sector. While Bezos’s book retailing was initially the target, Amazon is now involved in a wide variety of categories and industries.
For every job created by Amazon, which is predominantly in the low-wage sector, two well-qualified employees lose their jobs. In the US alone, Amazon has managed to destroy 85,000 retailers and 35,000 small to medium-sized manufacturers. These can now be found at Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), a crowdworking platform where workers around the world are not mediated, but are awarded the contract by bidding to see if they are allowed to take the job. With this concept, Amazon has created an on-demand workforce that is available worldwide and around the clock. It is not even guaranteed whether the worker is paid at all in the case of the surcharge, as this only happens when the client is satisfied with the execution. If this is not the case, it is not uncommon for the client to refuse to pay in part or in full.
At this point, as a reading recommendation, the two books “Schnauze, Alexa! I don’t buy from Amazon”, published in 2018 by The Frankfurter WESTEND Verlag and “Alexa, I’m going to stop you!” by Johannes Bröckers. The paperback, also published by Westend Verlag on 5 October 2020, convincingly and relentlessly shows what Amazon’s business practices look like, what the company’s actions are global and what dangers it creates if Jeff Bezos continues to do what he wants.
Mark Zuckerberg joins this series of data analysis and exploitation with his facebook platform. Founded in 2004, (a)social network manages 2.5 billion users worldwide. Unlike Google, where behavioral data is analyzed, Facebook can access voluntarily provided data and pass it on to third parties. Clear names, addresses, telephone numbers and other contact details do not have to be determined and processed by clever tricks. The ‘Facebooker of The World’ specifies all this when registering and creating his personal profile and thus becomes a useful supplier.
Also from comments, times and group affiliations of the users, usable insights and conclusions are drawn and the interests, hobbies, habits etc. of the willing Facebooker stodetermine. The world-famous “Like-Button” (Like) already says a lot about the user.
Facebook especially likes when users write comments in endless debates and discussions or exchange messages. In these multi-liners, true data treasures come to light, which Facebook only needs to harvest and run through its algorithms.
Data dirt instead of data protection
While protecting personal, sensitive data should appeal to everyone, most people are disinterested, too comfortable or simply too lazy. Many people cannot (or do not want to) even begin to imagine how their data is collected and for which it is misused and misused.
With the disclosure of name, address and telephone number one is even more careful, but all other information about oneis is usually disclosed carefree, free according to the motto, one has nothing to hide. It is precisely this way of thinking that greedy data octopuses are taking advantage of and began years ago to shower people with mobile versions of their data traps as a matter of course. From smartphones to navigation devices, all everyday user devices have been and are equipped with an app or gadget that diligently taps into our private data and postings.
No outcry, no indignation or anger towards the spy companies. Public transport, attractions, the trip to work or shopping, the current holiday destination. Google, Facebook and co. always know when and where the user is on the road, who he meets, how he thinks politically, what he looks at, what he hears, eats, buys - or not. If the name BND or tax office were on some apps, there would be great outrage.
Considering that there is a great deal of shouting, especially in Germany, when it comes to the state invasion of the privacy and personal data of the population, it is a bad joke that adult people have voluntarily brought voice-controlled, internet-based intelligent personal assistants such as Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft) or the Google assistant into their homes. In the permanent stand-by of the devices in order to catch the voice commands of his consumer slaves, also called useful idiots, this technique is intentionally misused as expected. The eavesdropping bugs of the tech companies record everything and pass the data on to their manufacturers unfiltered.
Merging as an innovation
The next stage of development is in full swing: the fusion of the analogue and digital worlds. The Internet will disappear. It will not be gone, but everywhere! People will move dynamically in digital spaces without consciously noticing it. Intelligent refrigerators, self-regulating thermostats, voice and behavior control are already beginning to establish themselves under the term “smart home technology”. Or think of the so-called variables, the smartwatches or so-called health wristbands. When connected to the Internet in this way, home appliances are an important part of the Internet of Things (IoT).
With all this fusion of the digital and analogue world, much more behavioral surplus can be generated than is already the case, which can then be made economically usable!
After the tech giants have managed to penetrate our ‘four walls’, they try to get into our innermost through the aforementioned variables. Constant collection of our body data is very intimate insights, but also equally valuable data from an economic point of view. There are already insurance companies that pay out bonuses to their customers when they buy a digital health wristband or smartwatch.
Insurance companies are now tinkering with the most bizarre ways to get to our data. Electric toothbrushes record how often we brush our teeth. The shopping app passes the data on to see how healthy we are eating. And the ‘Smart Driving Assistant’ in the car reveals data that leads to conclusions about our driving behaviour.
Surveillance capitalism is like a land grab, comparable to the colonization of indigenous peoples by Europeans. Out of convenience, ignorance or simply stupidity, we allow more and more of these technical innovations to flow into our everyday lives and deprive us of our own freedom piece by piece (Stichw. foreign determination, conditioning).
In 2010, Google came up with the idea of letting vehicles with cameras travel around the country, and photographing every section, every building piece by piece. Google incorporated the resulting data and suggested a practical usefulness that would benefit every user by making the apps and gadgets even better for the user. In reality, public space has been appropriated to generate other potential sources of money.
The commercialization and colonization of our body is taking on ever-increasing dimensions. In doing so, existing law is primarily ignored in order to create facts which are then difficult to undo in retrospect. Such ‘conquest patterns’ are becoming more and more common. The invaders of the 21st century do not ask for permission. They come forward and pave the scorched earth with pseudo-legitimizing practices. Instead of cynically transmitted royal edicts, they offer cynically mediated usage agreements whose draconian demands are no less obscure and incomprehensible than those of colonial rulers in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Such a rigorous approach was also put into practice with ‘Google Street View’. Facts were created by the camera vehicles of buildings and the people in the vicinity taking pictures. Whether the owners, residents and all registered passers-by agreed with this at all or whether Google had violated the applicable law (e.B. on the protection of the private guards) was meaningless at first. Only in hindsight did persons, buildings, car registration plates, etc. have to be pixelated (made unrecognizable), but only if this ‘compulsory registration’ was objected to in writing.
Just as the indigenous peoples had to submit to the repressive orders of the European colonial powers, which they could not understand, most people today accept the general terms and conditions of the IT giants - completely clueless what they ‘accept’. Let’s face it, who, for example, has read the terms and conditions of Facebook, after all, sloppy 38 pages, intensively? Here Facebook, Google and Co. create facts, because those who want to use them are accepted by ticking.
At the end of the day, the question arises as to what can be done about this surveillance capitalism. First and foremost, of course, the renunciation of the whole. However, the tech giants are also entering our analogue world beyond the digital sector. Even if you don’t own a smartphone, PC, laptop, tablet or TV, you can’t escape the tentacles completely. At the latest in public spaces or at the workplace, cameras, microphones or sensors capture us and use them to identify and analyse our person.
One way of overcoming surveillance capitalism would be to expropriate and/or dismantle these corporations. Now the pulse will surely go up for some readers when the spectre of communism, the expropriation, is mentioned here. However, one thing should become clear to them: the Internet was originally supposed to belong to all of us. It is we who are currently being expropriated, selling our personal data to the advertising industry, insurance companies, banks and other sectors of the economy, without which we earn even a penny. We are voluntarily giving up more and more of our freedom and self-determination, making ourselves glassy and being manipulated, guided and exploited by a few but extremely powerful corporations. Most people aren’t even aware of the danger posed by such tech giants - or even shy. . no matter. It is an acute threat to our society.