Axios Future

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June 24, 2019

Welcome to a special edition of Future. A century after big industrialists and their enormous vision helped to create a new middle class and the American juggernaut, profound doubt has set in on the brand of capitalism behind it.

Yet, all but invisible to most of us, a new capitalism has already taken its place, one created by the tech behemoths that dominate Silicon Valley. Today, we explore that world, the subject of "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power," a new book by Shoshana Zuboff, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School.

We'd love to hear what you think. Just hit reply to this email or shoot me a message at [email protected]. Or write to Kaveh at [email protected] or Erica at [email protected].

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,394 words, ~5-minute read.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The new data capitalism

llustration of binary code as a human silhouette.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Around the world, companies big and small are feverishly plotting our future lifestyle — smart cities, driverless vehicles, wearable technology, internet-connected everything at home, and more, all activated by our voices and thoughts.

  • But behind these aspirations is a hidden aim: to know every possible thing, public and private, in real time, about you and every other reachable individual on the planet — where they go, what they do, say and feel. And, with that knowledge, to win entry to a fabulously wealthy new elite economy that has already assumed great power in the world.

What's happening: For almost two decades, a tiny handful of companies — like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and China's Alibaba and Tencent — have created this new economy as a byproduct of their powerful platforms. With sky-high valuations, they have become the richest businesses on the planet, making billionaires of their founders and lead executives.

They're peddling certainty about what we will do next, often set in motion using techniques of behavior modification.

The overall effect is so big that it amounts to an entirely new strain of capitalism, argues Zuboff. She dubs it "surveillance capitalism."

  • Zuboff distinguishes this new economic order from the old industrial capitalism with its core aim not of producing a tangible good, but predictions that Big Tech can sell.
  • Notwithstanding its eerie feel, many of the world's biggest legacy companies want in on the bonanza — the Detroit carmakers, banks, insurance providers, retailers, health care firms, educators, and anyone else who intersects with customer data.
  • The appeal is easy to grasp. Saddled with the low traditional multiples accorded by Wall Street to mere profitability, they are salivating at the possibility of data-driven Silicon Valley valuations.

"It’s all over the place, embedding in every industry," Zuboff tells Axios.

The big picture: We have heard pieces of this thesis. At the Center for a New American Security, a new program tracks "High tech illiberalism," mostly in the form of state surveillance conducted by countries like China.

  • How we have been caught unawares: In the first half of the 20th century, Europeans and Americans, watching early totalitarian power, thought it was imperialism. Similarly, Zuboff argues, surveillance capitalism is so new that people are simply unequipped to comprehend what they are seeing.
  • "We rely on concepts like 'monopoly' or 'privacy' to contest surveillance capitalist practices," she writes.
  • But this is a deliberate strategy by surveillance capitalists, who need people to be unaware for data vacuuming to work best — "all obfuscated and covered in euphemism," she told me.

What's next: What unnerves Zuboff is a future society — led by corporations concerned with guaranteed outcomes — that conditions humans to conform to a certain script. It would be a future "free of mistakes, accidents and random messes" — and also shorn of the primacy of individuality and personal agency at the heart of the Enlightenment.

"The goal now is to automate us."
— Zuboff, "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism"

But Zuboff says it doesn't have to be this way. "The big lie," she writes, "is that this is inevitable. We can easily imagine digital technology without surveillance capitalism."

2. I'm being watched — and I don't care

Photos of an Amazon Go sign and shelves inside a Go store

AmazonBasics private label products at Go in Seattle. Photos: Erica Pandey/Axios

Tech companies in the surveillance game are betting hard on one thing: that consumers — especially younger ones — won't care too much what you know about them as long as you give them really cool stuff.

I would know — I’m one of them, writes Erica.

The big picture: Per a February IBM survey, 71% of consumers say it's worth sacrificing privacy for the benefits of technology.

  • A whopping 81% say they're concerned about how their data is used. But only 45% have actually updated privacy settings in the last year, and a measly 16% have stopped using a tech company's service because of data misuse.
  • According to an Axios/Survey Monkey poll, 46% of consumers aged 18–24 always accept a company's privacy policies without reading a single word. Only 15% of those over 65 do the same.

Why it matters: This is why surveillance capitalism has boomed. I — like scores of others — have decided that I'm OK with giving up personal data in order to keep getting convenient, cheap (or free) services. Despite the known episodes of firms misusing data, the ease and quality of life under the reign of Big Tech generally seems worth it.

  • On top of that, despite the public techlash, many of the companies at the pinnacle of data capitalism — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — are among the most trusted institutions in the country.
  • Consumers' big gamble is that companies won't do anything untoward with their personal information.

Zuboff's book misses this, author Nicholas Carr wrote in the LA Review of Books:

"Many people, it seems clear, experience surveillance capitalism less as a prison, where their agency is restricted in a noxious way, than as an all-inclusive resort, where their agency is restricted in a pleasing way."

Two weeks ago, while in Seattle, I visited my first Amazon Go store. The small, seemingly harmless shop's capabilities for snooping are immense.

  • It knows exactly how I moved about the store, what items I bought together and when I bought them.
  • Amazon can combine that with my online shopping, watching and listening habits through Amazon Prime and Alexa.

But when it comes to Go — or Instagram or Uber — I just don't care. As a friend put it, "Take my data; give me free shit."

3. The steady erosion of privacy at home

Illustration of a house being examined with a magnifying glass and revealing binary code.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Public spaces are under constant surveillance from AI cameras, cellphone towers and advertisers that can follow people from home to work and back again, Kaveh reports.

  • But life inside the home, too, is increasingly transparent to watchful outsiders, the result of mushrooming internet-connected devices that consumers are setting up in their dens and bedrooms.

What's happening: Internet-connected devices can pick up your voice, interests, habits, TV preferences, meals, times home and away, and all sorts of other sensitive data. The gadgets send all this back to the tech companies where they were made.

The big picture: Constant surveillance at home is not yet a reality — but it's the direction we're moving in, says Jay Stanley, senior policy counsel at the ACLU.

  • Three main groups are peering into the home: tech companies, hackers and the government.
  • Companies receive data from "smart" things inside your home; hackers try to intercept it; governments can get it straight from the tech firms with a subpoena.
  • And most of this watching is enabled by the watched — residents who bring AI assistants, connected thermostats, video doorbells, "smart" appliances and even Wi-Fi lightbulbs into their own homes.

There are still "dumb" alternatives to nearly every internet-connected thing. You can still buy a toaster that does not have Alexa in it, or a lightbulb that's switched on with, well, a switch.

  • But year by year, the trade-off is becoming more dramatic. Keeping internet-connected tech out of your home will leave you increasingly far behind the convenience curve.
  • In some cases, it's not even up to you. Apartments are starting to come with connected devices preinstalled — to the horror of some privacy-conscious residents.

The massive spread of these devices introduce "enormous potential for abuse, for discrimination, and for shifts in power away from the individual and toward companies and agencies," says Stanley.

But as Erica writes above, people are increasingly OK being watched, as long as they get something out of it. According to an Axios/Survey Monkey poll, 70% of people are comfortable living with "smart home" devices.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Walmart wants to see inside your home (Sam Dean — LA Times)

AI awakens surveillance cameras (Kaveh Waddell — Axios)

AI will reshape the global order (Nicholas Wright — Foreign Affairs)

Jaron Lanier: Delete your account (Harper Simon — LA Review of Books)

Digital freedom and repression (Paul Scharre, Kara Frederick — CNAS) (video)

5. 1 fun thing: Surveillance-busting sunglasses

Video courtesy Scott Urban

Surrounded by increasingly inescapable cameras — backed with AI software that can recognize faces and behaviors — there's one quiet way to fight back: with clothing and masks that confuse cameras and hide you from the watchers, Kaveh writes.

For years, artists and activists have sold anti-surveillance wear, most of which covers the face. It ranges from dazzling geometric makeup to stylish glasses that are opaque to most cameras.

  • Launched on Kickstarter today are sunglasses billed as "privacy eyewear," designed to render facial recognition useless.
  • To other people — or a regular camera — they look like a normal pair of sunglasses. But wear them and your own iPhone won't recognize you. Nor will nighttime surveillance systems or eye trackers, according to their designer, Scott Urban.

I asked Urban if he sees a big demand for surveillance-busting eyewear.

  • "The market for privacy is in its infancy," he responded. "All indicators point to a society where people will gladly sign over their biometrics without reading the standard 20-page user agreement."
  • But, he says, there will always be "outcasts" who don't want any part of the system. And according to his Kickstarter page, at least 30 outcasts have bought Urban's glasses today.

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect that the designer is Scott Urban (not Steve Urban).