Surveillance Capitalism Political Economy of Personal Space -Imran Nazir


Invention of Internet in late 20th century and proliferation of it in the early 21st century has been marked a distinct era of globalization which has been characterized by a speedy and connective mode of communication. Obviously this communication development has led to the narrowing down the distance between people and spaces around the world in virtual world. Access to Information and Communication Systems (ICTs) has been regarded as an empowering element in popular discourse as it enhances greater freedom of choices and creates diversity. But interestingly (also regrettably) the dark side of internet has remained carefully hidden from public eyes. We hardly know how we are being surveilled by service providers in Internet and how our personal data become a source of economic profit and political weapon in long run. This article will attempt to grasp the surveillance capitalism focusing on economic aspects while giving focus on political aspects of surveillance capitalism to some extent.
We use Internet for various purposes in our daily lives ranging from online shopping to attend online classes or meeting with friends over video chats. Given the nature of Internet communication in consideration, we perceive that none is likely to watch or see what we do on Internet unless someone has hacked our devices. But we are hardly aware of surveillance on Internet users at systemic level by service providers themselves who are supposed to assure the security of their service receivers. However, this surveillance is not motivated by any fantasy rather economic interest guides the whole surveillance process under the guise of surveillance capitalism.
Capitalism as an ideology is purely motivated by the maximization of economic interest through channeling supply and demand aspects in market. So, the very basis of capitalism is to maintain continued growth by sacrificing other’s interest even if it is necessary otherwise decline would cause self-destruction of the system. We can easily assume that capitalism has been involved in contributing negative climate change by polluting or over harnessing the nature to keep its economic growth upward despite multiple negative consequences. So, it is very likely that capitalism guides market in such a way which ultimately wants to convert things in a tradable and profitable goods. Internet arena has become one of the biggest targets of capitalism to extend its economic leverage among consumers.
The idea of surveillance capitalism has come very lately with the writings of Shoshana Zuboff. Her popular publication of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Future at the New Frontier of Power” (2019) has brought the issue of surveillance on internet on users at fore. Basically, surveillance capitalism has been defined as the commodification (creating market value) of personal data of Internet users for creating market expansion in real world. In practising surveillance capitalism, internet service providers namely websites (notably Google and Facebook) extract personal data of users and analyse them to predict the behaviour of them. Even these tech giant corporations launch targeted advertisement to lure those users in purchasing commodities. This is the main interesting point of surveillance capitalism.
Since the early 21st century, both popular and nonpopular websites have been involved in extracting basic data from users through the cookies option with the purpose of providing further service to them. Then these data were not that valuable to website owners rather a burden of keeping them in storage. However, things have started to change with the proliferation of google search engine as it had given direct clues about the choices, preferences and area of interest about the users so that services can be directed sharply in accordance with them. So, tech corporations have started accumulating more and more data about users. Interestingly the basic data (age, sex, religion, etc.) we provide consciously while using various websites are the least important data tech giants accumulate as their core interest lies in deeper information regarding users and their daily activities. Hundreds and thousand terms and conditions are attached in attaining various services what we hardly read or think it is worthy to have a look. So, they easily can have access to our very own space on Internet without our permission.
Nowadays we get puzzle to see something or someone on Facebook wall which have been lately talked about in real discussion or over text. It is not purely coincidence for new mothers to see commodities related to babies in adds or suggestion sections. Tech corporations constantly accumulate data related to our daily activities and scrutiny them to understand our needs and necessities. Even these tech giants sell these data to third parties who further analyse scattered data and create hypotheses regarding possible human actions. It is also psychologically proven that human nature unfolds in patterned similarities and finding those similarities builds prediction methods. However, this power of practicability attracts businesses to buy these data and target potential buyers to consume their products or accept their services.
Rising power and influence upon our life by tech giants is a real concerning thing. It not only curtails our freedom of choice rather makes passive actors in the hand of technological corporations. They do not guarantee the positive use of personal data as third parties buy these data with various purposes. Incident of Cambridge Analytica with Facebook has brought the issue how personal data can be weaponized to change the voters’ perception in US Election of 2016. Communal harmony and peace can also be destabilized by spreading hatred and extremism as tech giants do not bother about the contents being disseminated. So, we can understand how capitalism is running deep inside our personal space and shaping our economic decisions and political choices.

Author of this article is an analyst on international affairs.