Would You Like Some Surveillance Capitalism With Your Sandwich?

Why the demand for data leaves a bad taste

By Jonathan Rowson

“Nothing ever becomes real till experienced.” – John Keats

The next time you hear the word technology, think capitalism. And when you think of capitalism, think about which mutation of capitalism we are living through, and what it means for how our lived experience is evolving with that mutation.

On Tuesday night I lived through one of those moments where – as Keats says – something became real because it was experienced. The something was what Shoshanna Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’ which is an economic system based primarily on the harvesting and selling of personal data for profit. The experience was of trying to enter a supermarket to buy a sandwich for my son’s packed lunch the next day, but being unable to because I could only get past the barriers at the door if I downloaded an app on my smartphone, and agreed to sign up for a loyalty card.

I am not fond of this discussion! Honestly, I don’t want to be writing about consumer interests or consumer rights at all. I have no expertise in General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), I don’t identify as ‘a consumer’ (!) and I don’t even like shopping. Above all, this does not feel like my issue to carry. I have no strong feelings about Tesco, and have rarely shopped there. But I find myself in the thick of it. (…)

One way to make sense of my thwarted sandwich purchase on Tuesday night is that I encountered the frontier of power in a direct way for the first time. There was literally a frontier of sorts – a barrier placed by corporate power that thwarted my presumed freedom to buy a sandwich from a household-name supermarket. There is a little story below that captured people’s attention (a viral Twitter thread now in the national news) which is perhaps no accident because narrative conveys meaning in a way facts and concepts and propositions cannot. However, the real story here is not about me, nor the sandwich, nor even about Tesco as such, but rather a much bigger human species story about the character of our future which will be defined by our relationship to data (as well as our relationship to ecological collapse, averting nuclear war, wise stewardship of exponential technology, economic sanity, metapolitical skill etc. As I’ve said before we need to Taste the Pickle).

The point is that what starts as a consumer’s inability to buy a sandwich in London can gradually morph into a democratic society’s inability to prevent a social credit system, such as the one they currently have in China. We are not there yet, but The Overton Window has been moving over the last few years. It feels to me like we are sleepwalking towards a dystopian future where others profit from our personal information while controlling us, to further increase their profits (or, in the case of governments, to tie us ever closer to their agenda). Corporate power of all kinds will sell technological innovation to people as efficiency and convenience, but those are often watchwords for control, more precisely their increase in control and your loss of control. The encroachment of private demands for data into our personal and public lives is world-changing, but it is happening so gradually that we hardly notice.

Read the full article here: https://jonathanrowson.substack.com/p/would-you-like-some-surveillance

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