Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism or Democracy? The Death Match of Institutional Orders and the Politics of Knowledge

Shoshana Zuboff (Harvard Business School; Harvard Kennedy School) has posted “Surveillance Capitalism or Democracy? The Death Match of Institutional Orders and the Politics of Knowledge in Our Information Civilization” (Organization Theory, 3(3), 2022) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Surveillance capitalism is what happened when US democracy stood down. Two decades later, it fails any reasonable test of responsible global stewardship of digital information and communications. The abdication of the world’s information spaces to surveillance capitalism has become the meta-crisis of every republic because it obstructs solutions to all other crises. The surveillance capitalist giants–Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and their ecosystems–now constitute a sweeping political-economic institutional order that exerts oligopolistic control over most digital information and communication spaces, systems, and processes.

The commodification of human behavior operationalized in the secret massive-scale extraction of human-generated data is the foundation of surveillance capitalism’s two-decade arc of institutional development. However, when revenue derives from commodification of the human, the classic economic equation is scrambled. Imperative economic operations entail accretions of governance functions and impose substantial social harms. Concentration of economic power produces collateral concentrations of governance and social powers. Oligopoly in the economic realm shades into oligarchy in the societal realm. Society’s ability to respond to these developments is thwarted by category errors. Governance incursions and social harms such as control over AI or rampant disinformation are too frequently seen as distinct crises and siloed, each with its own specialists and prescriptions, rather than understood as organic effects of causal economic operations.

In contrast, this paper explores surveillance capitalism as a unified field of institutional development. Its four already visible stages of development are examined through a two-decade lens on expanding economic operations and their societal effects, including extraction and the wholesale destruction of privacy, the consequences of blindness-by-design in human-to-human communications, the rise of AI dominance and epistemic inequality, novel achievements in remote behavioral actuation such as the Trump 2016 campaign, and Apple-Google’s leverage of digital infrastructure control to subjugate democratic governments desperate to fight a pandemic. Structurally, each stage creates the conditions and constructs the scaffolding for the next, and each builds on what went before. Substantively, each stage is characterized by three vectors of accomplishment: novel economic operations, governance carve-outs, and fresh social harms. These three dimensions weave together across time in a unified architecture of institutional development. Later-stage harms are revealed as effects of the foundational-stage economic operations required for commodification of the human.

Surveillance capitalism’s development is understood in the context of a larger contest with the democratic order—the only competing institutional order that poses an existential threat. The democratic order retains the legitimate authority to contradict, interrupt, and abolish surveillance capitalism’s foundational operations. Its unique advantages include the ability to inspire action and the necessary power to make, impose, and enforce the rule of law. While the liberal democracies have begun to engage with the challenges of regulating today’s privately owned information spaces, I argue that regulation of institutionalized processes that are innately catastrophic for democratic societies cannot produce desired outcomes. The unified field perspective suggests that effective democratic contradiction aimed at eliminating later-stage harms, such as “disinformation,” depends upon the abolition and reinvention of the early-stage economic operations that operationalize the commodification of the human, the source from which such harms originate.

The clash of institutional orders is a death match over the politics of knowledge in the digital century. Surveillance capitalism’s antidemocratic economic imperatives produce a zero-sum dynamic in which the deepening order of surveillance capitalism propagates democratic disorder and deinstitutionalization. Without new public institutions, charters of rights, and legal frameworks purpose-built for a democratic digital century, citizens march naked, easy prey for all who steal and hunt with human data. Only one of these contesting orders will emerge with the authority and power to rule, while the other will drift into deinstitutionalization, its functions absorbed by the victor. Will these contradictions ultimately defeat surveillance capitalism, or will democracy suffer the greater injury? It is possible to have surveillance capitalism, and it is possible to have a democracy. It is not possible to have both.