The surprising benefit of becoming old is in finding out that issues that intrigue and often scare younger generations are not unique at all. They are modern variants of previous experiences. In the 1960s, electronic brains excited and awed the public no less than artificial intelligence does now. I studied what now we would call computer technology, but my diploma shows that my degree is in mathematical machines. People who were frightened of the technology they could not grasp gave those fancy names to what for us today is nothing more than helpful tools.
Today, artificial intelligence is regarded by many as a threat to our democracy and personal well-being. Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita from Harvard, is one of the leading figures voicing this opinion. She invented a new, scary term, “surveillance capitalism,” and wrote a book about it. Nowadays, capitalism does not have a good reputation, to begin with; hence, her theory spread all over media like fire. If someone missed it, a thoughtful review is here. Let us focus on her screed “You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” published recently by the New York Times.
How we ended up with such an advanced civilization
Professor Zuboff’s writings reveal that she is among those many who distrust capitalism in general. She worries that regardless of what capitalists might do, it will not be beneficial for us. Her objective is not to help us comprehend the world around us. She seeks to provide additional arguments proving how disastrous capitalism is. We can forgive her for the ideological bias because she is not hiding it; she makes it apparent to the reader.
However, for a scientist, the absence of a historical perspective is not acceptable. Human nature has not changed since the inception of our civilization. Inventions happen today in the same way as they took place for the caveman. Someone has an idea, let us say, of using a horse. Every invention – be it taming a horse, using a windmill or a steam machine – requires time and resources, above the essential survival needs of an innovator. Hence, he needs to figure out how to get compensated. Someone who learned first how to train a horse did not want everyone to know how to do it. That person preferred to exchange a trained horse for something of value to them. The inventor can prosper only by obtaining, using a term promoted by professor Zuboff, an “epistemic inequality” for at least some time. “Epistemic” means “about knowledge or the conditions for acquiring it.” Professor Zuboff uses it 19 times in the aforementioned essay in the New York Times. She is indignant that capitalists profit from learning more and quicker than others do.
We have our civilization only because, on countless occasions, those of our ancestors who knew something better than their compatriots used this to generate a profit. It is worth adding that an innovator could only profit if the social structure allowed for keeping the benefits of an invention. A slave had no time or means to work on a novel idea and slim chances of retaining its profits. For example, in the United States, technological progress thrived in slave-free states.
Capitalism, as we know it, has been recognized since around the middle of the 19th century. But it arrived from the long tradition of relative freedom of enterprise existing in many societies since the beginnings of time. Our civilization happened solely because, in the past, there were communities with social rules, now called capitalistic, where entrepreneurial people could take advantage of their epistemic inequality. If we did not have societies respecting customs, which we recognize as capitalistic, professor Zuboff would tend to a fire and kids in a cave’s niche. There would be no Harvard, where she worked; there would be no Facebook nor Google, which she complains about so much. And if she had some critical opinions, she could not write them down because writing would not have been created either.
Change is the only constant
For any invention to arrive, many human interactions must happen. Inventors are a scarcity; they need time and resources to develop their ideas. There needs to be enough demand so that inventors can profit. Last, there should be conditions that allow the invention to spread to other communities. In prehistoric times, when most people lived in small, isolated communities, it took a lot of time for all the above conditions to occur. The domestication of the horse from the first attempts to where it became an essential part of most communities in Eurasia took probably a few thousand years. Later, people learned to exploit the power of the wind and water, constructed machines, and more recently computers. Thanks to inventions, we became richer. Our living conditions improved, and there are many of us. We are better educated and interact with others all over the world with the speed of light. As a result, as we all can see and professor Zuboff warns us about, the pivotal technological changes happen faster than many of us can catch and adjust to.
Up to the end of the 19th century, whatever a young person learned as a youth sufficed to navigate his way throughout his entire life. Later, in the most advanced countries, the pace of progress sped up to the degree that pivotal technological shifts occurred more than once during the lifetime of one generation. About half a century ago, it affected almost everyone in the advanced nations and many everywhere else. Today, no one can dodge it; it is global.
The nature of the technological progress we witness now and the ways we benefit from it have not changed since the dawn of humanity. The difference is that, for the first time in human history, life-changing technological advancements happen a few times during our productive lifespan. To function, we are required to grasp new skills, change professions, and adapt our habits. More than ever before, we have to improve our traditional human intelligence continuously.
Alvin Toffler, in his book “Future Shock,” published 50 years ago, describes how in our perception, we have “too much change in too short a period of time.” Now we have in abundance what Toffler noticed as coming. Regardless of the angle at which we look at it, we have two options: learn how to handle the change or stop the progress. For most of us, the answer is obvious: embrace the new and master how to use it.
Despite the realization that a shockingly fast-changing society could be a novel experience for us, mentally, we should be prepared for it. About 2,500 years ago, a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, stated his famous “panta rhei,” that everything flows, that we cannot walk into the same river twice. His teachings are part of the Western civilization; hence, we should already know that change is the only constant in life. Artificial intelligence is another stride in the ongoing progress. There is no need to discover any new, abstract concepts such as surveillance capitalism.
Good people and evil capitalists
When reading professor Zuboff’s essay, one can conclude that this is how she understands our society. Unselfish people are on one side, and preying on them, capitalists are on the opposite side. Thanks to the capitalists who sold me the software I am using, within a few clicks, I found out that professor Zuboff used the term “prey” in this context eight times in her essay. Professor Zuboff explains why I purchased that software: “Surveillance capitalists are fast because they seek neither genuine consent nor consensus. They rely on psychic numbing and messages of inevitability to conjure the helplessness, resignation and confusion that paralyze their prey.” In plain language, according to professor Zuboff, we buy things not because we need them. We do it because capitalists, without our approval, sneakingly collect information about us and then apply it to numb our minds, putting us in a state of resignation and helplessness. Then, confused and paralyzed, we become their prey, buying whatever they want to sell.
There is a grain of truth in her argument. With advanced data collection and manipulation, marketing is much more precise than ever before. For example, I like to wear vests. Marketers figured it out, and I am receiving unsolicited emails and advertising offering me vests. Likely, I purchased a few more than I need. But thanks to that marketing, I am well-informed about vest prices; hence, I buy them when they are on sale. The extra few dollars wasted on vests, which I like but do not need, did not affect my financial situation. But it gave me a few moments of blissful joy, of a little opulence.
I know a person who travels often and always makes sure that Google knows what he likes and dislikes. Then, recalling his preferences, Google guides him in new places. For many, it is less critical what big data manipulators know about us. We value our time and will trade some of our privacy for the convenience of obtaining quickly what we desire when we need it.
Professor Zuboff does not recognize this transactional relationship we have with companies like Google or Facebook. When writing that “surveillance capitalists” gain information about us without our “genuine consent nor consensus,” she accidentally unveils that she does not realize what is going on outside of the ivory tower of academia. As Jason T. Voiovich points out in his article, over 100 million devices with Amazon’s Alexa assistant installed have been sold. These 100 million buyers not only gave consent. They also gave their money, which constitutes consensus, authorizing the big-time capitalists to access their private data.
Some of us draw the line as to which data we allow to exchange for convenience. We use credit cards when convenient, and we pay with cash when it is crucial. We apply our human intelligence in shielding information that could be harmful if leaked into the public domain, but let the “surveillance capitalists” believe that they have a full picture. It represents our faith that our venerable human intelligence can still outsmart the new artificial one.
In her horrifying picture, professor Zuboff portrays us as helpless against the cynical greed of surveillance capitalists. She is right to the extent that there are people who fit her narrative. There always have been buyers for the snake oil and the Brooklyn Bridge. Each of us knows at least a few individuals who cannot manage their finances. They buy on impulse, they cannot work a budget, or as I once heard, with the money they do not have, they buy things they do not need, to impress people they dislike.
Until recent times, most of our ancestors lived on the borderline of survival. Having a shelter and not going to sleep hungry were primary objectives. Now, most of us, at least occasionally, have some disposable income. Some of us still have not learned how to handle it wisely. Long before computers and sophisticated data processing, these people were the gold mine for all kinds of marketers. Now, the data-rich “surveillance capitalists” explore this lucrative section of the market as well. Professor Zuboff wrongly blames “surveillance capitalists” for the misfortunes of the financially illiterate among us. Those “surveillance capitalists” hurt mostly the old-style marketers who are still using mundane human intelligence. Neither the old-style capitalists nor the new generation of the “surveillance capitalists” are the problem. The problem is that in a prosperous society, such as in the United States, too many people are economically ignorant. Our challenge is not in taming winners who are using artificial intelligence, but in advancing the ordinary human intelligence so more of us can benefit from technological progress.
Privacy is still private
Professor Zuboff disagrees. She claims that it is a delusion or “the most treacherous hallucination.” Let us glance at the privacy that our ancestors had before capitalists came into the picture. Before the industrial era, most people resided in rural communities, where everyone knew everyone. If a boy kissed a girl, someone likely saw it, and rumors started. The local merchant knew all his clients better than the most advanced “surveillance capitalists” can do it now. And he exploited this to his gain. So did any other person involved in any business, religion, or politics. Even in cities, when most of the traveling was by foot, people were living in clusters where, again, they knew each other.
Capitalism changed everything. With the ease of travel, people relocated all over the world. Big cities popped up. Staying anonymous in the crowd became standard. Those who did not like capitalism lamented that, in the anonymity of urban agglomerations, traditional community ties disappeared, breeding crime and immorality. Thanks to progress, now, on a global scale, we can experience virtually the social connections that our predecessors had in tiny villages. We do not lose privacy; we lose the anonymity that urbanization once provided. Those who do not like capitalism complain again. Our current changes in privacy and anonymity are nothing new, and they will evolve with progress. Regardless of what the next improvement will be, opponents of capitalism will identify some negative aspects of it and will bring them again up as proof of the evils of capitalism.
I started my political writing almost half a century ago. Researching for my articles, I spent long hours in libraries browsing books, old newspapers, and community bulletins. Many times it stunned me at how much useful information I could find. Almost everything that happened in public left a trace. Not much has changed since then, except that now, with a few clicks, I can find much more on the internet.
Parallel, my writing gave me some recognition within a community, and soon I realized that many people I did not know, knew who I was. It surprised me to learn afterward that people had noticed my whereabouts in a relatively large city. Even among family and friends, if my conduct would be newsworthy, it might become public knowledge. I concluded that when I am among others, my privacy is public. Preserving privacy requires keeping private things private. It was true 50 years ago; it is true even more in the age of Facebook. I understood this by observing people’s behavior when living in a socialistic country. To arrive at the same conclusion, professor Zuboff needed to invent “surveillance capitalists.”
Human and artificial intelligence in politics
Professor Zuboff reports that surveillance capitalists use artificial intelligence to get “epistemic inequality,” forming the “epistemic hierarchy,” giving them “epistemic dominance,” which strips us of “epistemic rights,” and “epistemic justice.” She points out: “The challenges of epistemic justice and epistemic rights in this new era are summarized in three essential questions about knowledge, authority and power: Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows?” She missed the most obvious question: Who prevents people from learning? No one does. It is easier than one might suspect. To bridge the epistemic inequality, we need not know all that data about others. We only need to know who we are and what we want. Also, we should consider that what they know about us is only what we choose to put in the public domain. In this approach, epistemic inequality works to our advantage. Even the smartest artificial intelligence has no way to determine if I buy vests for myself, or I am spying for a competitor.
The same pertains to political messages. The famous Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal could take place only because of a shameful lack of elementary civic education by most Americans. Manipulation of public opinion by lies and deception is as old as human civilization. The culprits always used their everyday human intelligence to spot the best venue to spread their poison. A reasonable person would assume that now they would go where the crowds are, to Facebook. But professor Zuboff was among the best and the brightest who were surprised that “these platforms are not bulletin boards but hyper-velocity global bloodstreams to which anyone may introduce a dangerous virus without a vaccine.” It did not occur to her that the vaccine people should receive ought to come from nobody else but her, and her fellow academics. That vaccine is the elemental knowledge of economy, human behavior, and the concepts of the American political system.
Instead of taking on this task, professor Zuboff is happily noting that “there are many indications that lawmakers are ready to join and to lead.” In times of artificial intelligence, too many people fall behind with their ordinary human intelligence. This is the crux of our problem. One cannot pass a law making Americans smarter.
Professor Zuboff notes aptly that the actual danger of the surveillance technology is in government’s use. For example, China is adopting it “in Xinjiang, where members of the Uighur community live in open-air prisons under perpetual surveillance by facial recognition systems.” In one breath, she mentions data collection for commercial purposes along with data collection by governments. A merchant wants our data with the intention of offering us something that we might desire and be thankful for prompting us about it. Governments collect data to ascertain if our behavior justifies limiting our freedom. Professor Zuboff does not recognize a difference between the two.
We may have very little say on what kind of information corporations keep about us. But, as voters, we have all the power to control what information governments can have about us. The easiest way is by not funding government surveillance projects. But here, professor Zuboff is trapped in the inconsistency of her argument. She sees corporations as the greatest danger and, to protect us from them, she is willing to provide governments with extra powers. The more that governments are tasked to do, the more that lobbyists can buy. Working hand in hand, they collude. Big corporations get government’s acquiescence for exploiting the epistemic inequality that professor Zuboff criticizes so much. In reciprocation, governments get access to the big data that corporations have, but we never will.
As it is with every new technology, data collection and video surveillance on the scale available now create potential vulnerabilities to our privacy and freedom. But asking the government to resolve it is as effective as putting a fox in charge of a henhouse.
The data will decide our future
A long time ago, using horses propelled our civilization. Many other inventions followed, defining their eras. Computers were the thing in the second half of the 20th century. Now we have entered the age of data. Most of us are not well-prepared, because accustomed to comforts, we do not get as much intellectual stimulation as our ancestors did. Ordering a pizza is much less mentally challenging than hunting for dinner. We might operate very sophisticated machines, but they are made user-friendly. Owning a smartphone does not make one smarter, either.
Without a good understanding of the principles of technology, economy, human nature, and politics, we are doomed to be taken advantage of by people who learn more and quicker than we do. It is not enough anymore to have a narrow set of skills allowing us to make a living as a cog in the gigantic machine. The future of nations depends on a broad education. Countries with people who can see the big picture better than others will be the winners in our epoch. Professor Zuboff tells us that all our miseries come from people who learn more and faster than we do. She is wrong.