Surveillance, data collection and crowd-sourced labor
In his studies of digital economies, Professor Nick Srnicek has denominated the term “platform capitalism” as the current condition of how information is collected and monetized through the Internet.1 According to Srnicek, data has become a new raw material that the recent form of 21 st-century capitalism has been exploiting for years. To harvest this data, new infrastructural models needed to emerge. A platform facilitates interactions in a network, placing itself in a privileged and hierarchical position between users. As Srnicek explains, a platform has a unique position to record and collect data on any interactions occurring in the platform.
Corporations such as Facebook, YouTube or Google are examples of contemporary platforms, each possessing an asymmetric relation to all other users in their almost-monopolization of network infrastructure. YouTube’s users are encouraged to promote and grow the network by becoming partners of the network, receiving payment from the views of content they create. This monetization establishes competition for the production of content, where users operate as entrepreneurs, building their channel and brand identity. For theorists such as Srnicek2 andTiziana Terranova,3 this constitutes a business model based on the exploitation of free labor, i.e., “laborers who produce goods (data and content) that are then taken and sold by the companies to advertisers and other interested parties.”4
Platforms are critical for the production of social content, and as we will discuss in this chapter, they present a crucial technology for the potential coordination between users. While in physical systems, discussed in Chapter 3, combinatorial design occurs with the direct engagement of available building blocks, in the medium of digital platforms it is possible to simulate and design information patterns prior to design execution. It is in this sense that platforms present a critical potential for the production of common repositories of knowledge, but the model and design of current platforms trends toward neoliberal exploitation, what Sho-shana Zuboff has denominated “surveillance capitalism.” As she explains:
It is important to note the vital differences for capitalism in these two moments of originality at Ford and Google. Ford’s inventions revolutionized production. Google’s inventions revolutionized extraction and established surveillance capitalism’s first economic imperative: the extraction imperative. The extraction imperative meant that raw-material supplies must be procured at an ever-expanding scale. Industrial capitalism had demanded economies of scale in production in order to achieve high throughput combined with low unit cost. In contrast, surveillance capitalism demands economies of scale in the extraction of behavioral surplus?
Zuboff identifies the key characteristics exhibited by digital platforms today: a neoliberal practice of extractivism as we have discussed in Chapter 1 and a manipulation of crowds through behavioral surplus. The unregulated capability of platforms to engage in behavior modification is perhaps the most critical challenge for the design of technology today, as it is necessary to conceive of and design systems that not only avoid the exercise of such power but also dismantle the possibility of such illegitimate power to exist in the first place. Zuboff has made a critical point to anticipate the rise of “instrumentarian power” as a more pervasive form of surveillance that not only observes but also is able to alter human behavior, which in turn is monetized. As she explains: “[SJurveillance capitalists declare their right to modify others’ behavior for profit according to methods that bypass human awareness, individual decision rights, and the entire complex of self-regulatory processes that we summarize with terms such as autonomy and self-determination.”6
The current exercise of instrumentarian power observed by Zuboff has given rise to the erosion of democracy. While operating within a private platform, a user typically signs an agreement with the network provider to handle their data for the commercial use of the company. Following the whistleblower Christopher Wylie’s denouncement of the data collection performed by Cambridge Analytica, the hearing of Mark Zuckerberg in front of a US congressional committee in April 2018 evidenced the lack of understanding of the general public and government regarding issues of privacy and data ownership. US Senator Richard Durbin said that he believes “that may be what this is all about. Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And how much you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting people around the world.”7
The right to privacy is a battle that has long been fought by technology' insiders, such as the group denominated as Cypherpunks, whose members include the Internet activist and creator of WikiLeaks Julian Assange. For Assange, the current state of platform capitalism is far bleaker than what we have been led to believe.
The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The internet is a threat to human civilization. These transformations have come about silently because those who know what is going on work in the global surveillance industry and have no incentives to speak out. Left to its own trajectory, within a few years, global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there.8
His message is a call to arms for utilizing the power of encryption to protect the right of privacy. For Assange, the technology of encryption presents a unique possibility for limiting the capacity of platforms and states to breach the privacy of individuals. This assessment operates under the simple principle that it is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt. As Assange presents it:
[T]he universe, our physical universe, has that property that makes it possible for an individual or a group of individuals to reliably, automatically, even without knowing, encipher something, so that all the resources and all the political will of the strongest superpower on earth may not decipher it. And the paths of encipherment between people can mesh together to create regions free from the coercive force of the outer state. Free from mass interception. Free from state control.
Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action.
Strong cryptography can resist an unlimited application of violence. No amount of coercive force will ever solve a math problem.9
Assange calls for collective resistance that begins from the acknowledgment that the right to privacy is fundamental in order to protect democracy. His methods with WikiLeaks are an attempt to increase the literacy of data privacy issues through the public exposure of corrupt practices. WikiLeaks has been at the forefront of transparency advocacy, attempting to bring some light to the unseen power exerted by obfuscating networks. Through the advocacy of connecting people and giving voice to new members in democratized platforms, the Internet has created one of the most powerful infrastructures for mass surveillance. Today, there are those who are attempting to weaponize it for political agendas.
Platforms, in their current form, homogenize. User actions are constrained to a series of identifiable choices, allowing the gathered data to be comprehensively tabulated and analyzed for further monetization. Digital platforms are where patterns are created. Computation and the use of artificial intelligence has allowed the categorization of individuals from rigid stereotypes to one-of-a-kind data personas that can follow predictable consumer patterns. Far from offering an emancipatory medium for the proliferation of new value, surveillance platforms instrumentalize their knowledge to manufacture certainty and monetize predictions.1" The interactions of millions of individuals constantly reshapes culture and redefines value. The design of alternative and critical platforms has become urgent. It is a design problem to reconceptualize these spaces where we spent time on in the Internet, challenging the market model of homogenization and attempting to redefine the ethos of a network as a fundamentally collaborative enterprise.