Surveillance Capitalism: the hidden costs of the digital revolution
From a paper by the Jubilee Centre, Cambridge
We are in the midst of a digitally-enabled industrial revolution. As with previous revolutions, this one is attended by both benefits and perils. Jubilee Centre have published a paper examining a business model called ‘surveillance capitalism’ that funds the free services of this digital revolution.
They describe the model itself; demonstrate the intrinsic dependence on deception, addiction, and exploitation; and suggest practical responses that individuals and communities can take to face these challenges with hope and assurance.
Datapoints, all time stamped with transaction details, geo-tagged locations, and actioned preferences, from devices such as Alexa, smart watches, smart phones, bank cards, travel cards, etc., are captured about you every minute of the day.
These data points will likely be ‘replicated millions of times by some algorithm somewhere designed to send an advertisement,’ and then added to huge databases that enable marketeers to create ‘scenarios’ and ‘outcomes’.
Staggeringly, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day (that’s 18 zeros). That number will continue to grow. Search engines log around 6.4 billion searches per day.
Should I really be worried about this?
Surveillance capitalism describes a new economic order built around aggregating human experience as free raw material, for hidden commercial practices of prediction, behavioural manipulation, and sales resulting in unprecedented concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power in the hands of private companies.
It defines a pursuit for money and power by a handful of privately controlled businesses, through increasingly intimate scrutiny of the lives of billions of people. These businesses have achieved market dominance through aggressive growth, regulatory weakness, and sustained lobbying. They now exert great influence over ideology and imagination across the whole democratic world. They have become fabulously wealthy by promoting ostensibly ‘free’ products and convincing the billions who use them to become a product for their own consumption.
How do surveillance capitalists make money? Much of their income comes from ‘digital advertising’. Between 2001 and 2020, digital advertising grew from 3.1 per cent of total advertising spend, to over 44 per cent. Google, Facebook, and Amazon together receive almost two-thirds of this revenue.
In 2001 Google’s annual income was $70 million; by 2020, Google generated $147 billion from advertising. In 2020, 98 per cent of Facebook’s $86 billion income was from advertising. Amazon’s advertising income ($14.1 billion in 2019) is doubling every two years.
To grow, surveillance capitalists need to extend their influence over what we do. Explicitly, demonstrating links between predicted and actual outcomes (e.g. advertisement leads to sales) increases the value of the services they sell to advertisers. Implicitly, improved prediction accuracy depends on having access to more data and better algorithms. To gain more data, they must increase our ‘engagement’ with their platforms.
A widely used, algorithm-powered customer engagement model is called the ‘hook model’. It depends on a perpetual cycle of:
Trigger – a system-offered invitation to respond
Action – the user’s response, which results in a …
Variable reward – offered by the system, which provokes further user …
Investment – resulting in another ‘trigger’
This model incorporates addictive elements into its core design, mirroring methods used in casinos to keep people playing. Teenagers and young adults are particularly vulnerable to these techniques, but almost anyone will find them hard to ‘beat’. Increasing engagement via the hook model provides both a constant source of behavioural data and a committed audience for advertisements.
These factors make surveillance capitalism much more than ‘improved advertising’ for the twenty-first century. Digital platforms depend on scale to achieve accuracy, recording behaviours to fuel algorithmically inferred opinions, desires, and expectations. By harvesting minute details of actions and responses from billions of people, the platform-owners are able both to classify individuals with precision and predict accurately how individuals within any identified group will respond to a given input. Surveillance capitalists have achieved a huge asymmetry of knowledge and power over consumers and arguably over democratic governments.
Perspectives to consider:
The delusions of purely technological hope. The biggest technology companies have quasi-theological visions - Facebook wants to ‘bring the world closer together’, Amazon offers ‘Everything from A to Z’, Google’s ‘Change the world’. Data is a new unit of currency in this new world, fuelling the informational economy with real-time insights, actions, and preferences. The technology-evangelists’ goal is to provide products and services that are so compelling, easy to access, and intuitive to use that we can’t help but adopt them. They want to offer a form of frictionless living, enabled by their products, and built around their digital architecture, that encourages us to use their services frequently, while enabling them to harvest our data. That data provides insight into human living, which in turn provides the means to exert influence over our lives.
The deception of democratised (digital) relationships. We are told that social media ‘give[s] people the power to build community’, but research repeatedly demonstrates that social media rapidly and permanently polarises users. Research into the harms of social media, particularly on young adults, is reflected in the sites’ own FAQs addressing abuse and eating disorders. The design of social media platforms intentionally redefines common relational paradigms. Facebook transformed ‘friend’ from a noun to a verb: you now ‘friend’ (or ‘unfriend’) someone to open access to curated personal information. To maximise my friending ability, Facebook collates my friends’ information, so I don’t have to digitally ‘go’ anywhere to participate in the relationship. Twitter and Instagram go further, abandoning the pretence of symmetry by defining relationships in terms of ‘followers’. This is the infrastructure that supports growing addiction.
The hook model and addiction. The spiritual danger posed by social media is that it almost subconsciously takes precedence over everything else in our lives. Having convinced us to accept digital relationships, those relationships are now mediated by platforms scientifically designed to maximise our engagement. The basic premise is that you post something that is pushed to your followers, who get an alert and are encouraged to open the app. Your followers can respond with comments or ‘likes’, which are tracked and displayed. Feedback gives users that temptation to see people respond, and then immediately gratifying it and inviting the user to post again. This addiction is formed early: over 70 per cent of all children and nearly 90 per cent of adolescents in the US sleep with a digital device connected to social media, which demonstrably reduces sleep quality and correlates with rises in depression.
The costs of exploitation. Surveillance capitalism is more interested in keeping us ‘content’ and connected to harvest information. Specifically, they observe and record millions of our behaviours and responses to (strategically) varied inputs to create something like an avatar (a virtual representation) of each of us that mimics our responses to given inputs. The more data they collect, the more refined our avatar, the more accurately they can test and select inputs to manage our responses. When these inputs have been refined against my avatar, what chance do I stand against the well-financed effort to nudge my behaviours, emotions, and beliefs in one direction or another?
Elements of a Christian response
During the pandemic, products such as Zoom sustained our friendships and our worship; however, we consider these technologies as substitutes. We are embodied creatures and we rightly long to interact face-to-face. This God-given longing is a compass to help navigate the deceptive and exploitative redefinition of relationships described earlier.
Jesus himself is the preeminent example of choosing present, physical relationships in defiance of immediate ‘reach’ and ‘opportunity’. Surely God could have broadcast his good news directly to the whole globe, but he chose to come as a baby, apprentice as a carpenter, and then spend three years focused on evangelising and discipling a few dozen men and women. We find similar themes in Paul’s correspondence. He is distressed when he hears that people he knows are suffering. He writes to tell his readers that he longs to be with them, and that he finds his joy in them. John also desires to share joy ‘face to face’ rather than with ‘paper and ink’.
The instruction in 1 Peter for Christians to consider their identity ‘as foreigners and exiles’ offers encouragement and motivation to refocus time and energy away from social media and towards loving our physical neighbours. The Israelite exiles in Babylon are told to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ They are called to local love, in direct contrast to their natural longing to be elsewhere.
In the story of Creation, God rested on the seventh day. In the Ten Commandments, God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath holy, by resting. A first step away from digital slavery is to put our devices aside for one day each week. Perhaps we could take Andy Crouch’s advice. He suggests we set devices aside for one hour each day, one day each week, and one week each year.
Christians are commanded to be ‘very careful… how you live’. One of the best defences against busyness and digital addiction may be an adaptation of the ancient practice of a ‘rule of life’.
The Rule of Saint Benedict provides a guide for communal monastic living. The rule establishes regular rhythms of prayer, sleep, spiritual reading, and work. There has been a surge of interest in considering how aspects of Benedict’s ‘rule’ could be applied to individual as well as communal living. We see great benefit in establishing some fundamental low-tech relational rhythms and practices that reflect our most precious values and priorities. These can be combined into a personal ‘rule of life’. This offers a robust defence against the digital sprawl that threatens to inundate us and can help contain our working day. Without such practices, it is hard to ‘have life, and have it to the full’ in a world dominated by surveillance capitalism.
Challenging these perspectives is hard. Working together to develop practices of digital fasting, sabbath rest, and personal rule of life allows us to establish countercultural patterns that can break the bondage of consumerist technicism that holds us so tightly.
Restoring truth is no easy quest. In their fight for our attention, the owners of social media platforms have willingly accepted societal polarisation as an unimportant side effect of their activities. When we are fed ever more strident opinions that align with our own, common ground and alternative perspectives seem to evaporate. To rediscover truth, we must escape from the grip of these algorithmic tools. We have stepped too far into the looking-glass world of alternative truth, and we have to relearn the art of listening: to remember how to consider alternative perspectives, and to actively remind ourselves that the ‘facts’ we are holding on to have likely been deliberately handed to us by an algorithm designed to help entrench our position. Faith communities could go further by developing the notion of ‘generous conversations’ among people who have widely divergent views on contentious issues. These could be constructed to allow room for disagreement, to extend grace to errors, and to foster productive dialogue.
We have become utterly distractable, as T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘distracted by distraction from distraction’. Bottomless content and endless notifications ‘undermine our ability to focus and, implicitly, reduce our capacity to relate to each other – in the most basic terms, to love’. Indeed, ‘sensitising the mind to distraction … compromises our humanity’. It is this prospect for humanity that concerns us.
In this hyper-individualistic age, it is in embodied community where we can best ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds’, learning how to hear and respond to Jesus’ call over the digital cacophony. In community we can better ‘learn the unforced rhythms of grace’, putting the technology that is intended to serve us in its proper place. It is in that community where we can flourish; to know and to be known.
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From a paper by the Jubilee Centre, Cambridge, 21/09/2021