All-seeing glass eye

Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism sheds light on how cold, indifferent digital readers reduce human experiences

Published a year ago on Apr 20, 2019 Read

Surveillance capitalism is the puppet master that imposes its will through the medium of the ubiquitous digital apparatus. I now name the apparatus Big Other: it is the sensate, computational, connected puppet that renders, monitors, computes, and modifies human behavior. Big Other combines these functions of knowing and doing to achieve a pervasive and unprecedented means of behavioral modification. Surveillance capitalism’s economic logic is directed through Big Other’s vast capabilities to produce instrumentarian power, replacing the engineering of souls with the engineering of behavior.

Instrumentarian power cultivates an unusual “way of knowing” that combines the “formal indifference” of the neoliberal worldview with the observational perspective of radical behaviorism. Thanks to Big Other’s capabilities, instrumentarian power reduces human experience to measurable observable behavior while remaining steadfastly indifferent to the meaning of that experience. I call this new way of knowing radical indifference. It is a form of observation without witness that yields the obverse of an intimate violent political religion and bears an utterly different signature of havoc: the remote and abstracted contempt of impenetrably complex systems and the interests that author them, carrying individuals on a fast-moving current to the fulfillment of others’ ends. What passes for social relations and economic exchange now occurs across the medium of this robotized veil of abstraction.

Instrumentarianism’s radical indifference is operationalized in Big Other’s dehumanized methods of evaluation that produce equivalence without equality. These methods reduce individuals to the lowest common denominator of sameness—an organism among organisms—despite all the vital ways in which we are not the same. From Big Other’s point of view we are strictly Other-Ones: organisms that behave. Big Other encodes the viewpoint of the Other-One as a global presence. There is no brother here of any kind, big or little, evil or good; there are no family ties, however grim. There is no relationship between Big Other and its otherized objects, just as there was no relationship between B. F. Skinner’s “scientists and subjects.” There is no domination of the soul that displaces all intimacy and attachment with terror—far better to let a multitude of relationships bloom. Big Other does not care what we think, feel, or do as long as its millions, billions, and trillions of sensate, actuating, computational eyes and ears can observe, render, datafy, and instrumentalize the vast reservoirs of behavioral surplus that are generated in the galactic uproar of connection and communication.

In this new regime, objectification is the moral milieu in which our lives unfold. Although Big Other can mimic intimacy through the tireless devotion of the One Voice—Amazon-Alexa’s chirpy service, Google Assistant’s reminders and endless information—do not mistake these soothing sounds for anything other than the exploitation of your needs. I think of elephants, that most majestic of all mammals: Big Other poaches our behavior for surplus and leaves behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies, our brains, and our beating hearts, not unlike the monstrous slaughter of elephants for ivory. Forget the cliché that if it’s free, “You are the product.” You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The “product” derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life.