Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
Every single day
Every word you say
I’ll be watching you.
~ The Police
Back in the 1780’s British social theorist Jeremy Bentham and his entrepreneur brother came up with a design for what they thought would be the perfect prison.
It consisted of a multi-storied outer ring of brightly lit prison cells, each with a floor-to-ceiling window facing a central tower covered with opaque glass.
The Bentham bros figured that if the inmates believed they were being surveilled twenty-four-seven, they would behave themselves – whether or not there were actually any guards in the tower. Effortless social control. Jeremy called it a panopticon.
Benthams’ design was never implemented architecturally in Britain, but a corrupt dictatorship in Cuba in the 1920’s built the Presidio Modelo, a close approximation now long abandoned.
In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault used the concept as a metaphor for what he called ‘disciplinary societies’ in which the citizen is the target of ‘asymmetrical surveillance’ – “He is seen, but does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject of communication,” Foucault wrote.
Now two recent books are alerting us to the fact that we are on the brink of becoming inmates actually living in what amounts to a digitally enabled planetary panopticon.
Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, by investigative journalist Yasha Levine, shows the seamless connections between the military and corporate development of the internet – including so-called encryption applications.
Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for A Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, by Harvard Business School emerita professor Shoshana Zuboff, shows in depth how the internet and its data mining and monetization offshoots have morphed into an unprecedented system of societal behavioral modification for corporate profit.
Taken together these books are a wake-up call that we must quickly develop new concepts, understandings and modes of analysis and resistance if we are to avoid being digitally enslaved, yet so unaware of our enslavement that we are, as Professor Zuboff puts it, “singing in our chains.”
Two Stems from the Same Root – the Military and Commercial Internet
Levine’s book takes us through his process of discovery that the origins of what we now know as the ‘world wide web’ lie in the U.S. military’s quest for effective counterinsurgency methods in the Viet Nam war. The Internet, he shows, was born from the desire for domination and population control and has never really lost that essential character.
He debunks the popular twin internet creation myths that its origins lie (1) in the military’s quest for a non-decapitatable command structure to survive a nuclear war and (2) the liberatory fantasies of the likes of Stewart Brand and “radical young computer engineers and playful hackers” of the San Francisco Bay Area’s “acid-drenched counterculture.”
The latter was an idealistic vision, embraced by many at the time (including my young self) and expressed by the poet Richard Brautigan:
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
The reality was far darker.
“Since the start of the personal computer and Internet revolution,” Levine writes, “we’ve been told again and again that we are in the grips of a liberating technology, a tool that decentralizes power, topples entrenched bureaucracies, and brings more democracy and equality to the world. Personal computers and information networks were supposed to be the new frontier of freedom – a techno-utopia where authoritarian and repressive structures lost their power, and where the creation of a better world was still possible. And all that we, global citizens, had to do for this new and better world to flower and bloom was to get out of the way and let Internet companies innovate and the market work its magic. This narrative has been planted deep into our culture’s collective subconscious and holds a powerful sway over the way we view the Internet today.”
“But,” on the basis of his extensive research he says, “spend time looking at the nitty-gritty business details of the Internet and the story gets darker, less optimistic. If the Internet is truly such a revolutionary break from the past, why are companies like Google in bed with the cops and spies?”
From ARPA to DARPA to Tor’s ‘Back Doors’
A key revelation of Levine’s book is that the US military not only fathered the Internet, but that it also sired the encryption system, beloved of privacy advocates, known as Tor.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency was created in the Viet Nam era and quickly applied technology to American wartime aims. By the late 60’s it launched ARPANET. By the 1990’s ARPA and morphed into DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and ARPANET had evolved into the Internet.
“Everything was being hooked up to the Internet,” writes Levine, “banks, phones, power plants, universities, military bases, corporations, and foreign governments, both hostile and friendly.” But an open Internet, with every communication traceable to its source is not a safe place for spies operating under deep cover to communicate. So a DARPA team of mathematicians and geeks came up with a solution they called ‘the onion router’ or Tor.
The Navy set up a parallel system of servers that sat on top of the Internet. Covert traffic got redirected into this parallel network and bounced around from one Tor shell node to another so that when it finally surfaced in the Internet nobody could tell where it had come from.
But developers realized that if the system was used only by military and intelligence agencies, people would soon come to suspect any anonymized messages were “coming from the CIA.”
“To truly hide spies and soldiers,” Levine explains, “Tor needed to distance itself from its Pentagon roots and include as many different users as possible. Activists, students, corporate researchers, soccer moms, journalists, drug dealers, hackers, child pornographers, agents of foreign intelligence services, terrorists. Tor was like a public square – the bigger and more diverse the group assembled there, the better the spies could hide in the crowd.”
So in 2004, Roger Dingledine, one of the system’s key developers spun the onion routing project – still funded by DARPA – into a nonprofit corporation called the Tor Project.
Soon the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a Silicon Valley privacy advocacy group claiming to be against government surveillance programs gave the Tor Project nearly a quarter of a million dollars in bridging funding until it found other sponsors. The EFF even hosted the Tor website so that users would be reassured by a message from EFF: “Your traffic is safer when you use Tor.”
The EFF has a strange history for a privacy advocacy outfit. “In 1994,” Levine reports, “EFF worked with the FBI to pass the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required all telecommunications companies to build their equipment so that it could be wiretapped by the FBI.”
But EFF cover made Tor into an effective Trojan Horse operation trusted even by the likes of such arch surveillance resistors as Glen Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden.
What better way for the surveillance state to spy on its citizens than to supply them with a system they believe to by surveillance-proof and clears the way for surveillance capitalism?
Understanding the Unprecedented
Professor Zuboff ‘s Surveillance Capitalism offers several sobering definitions of surveillance capitalism. One of them is, “An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above; an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.”
In a highly readable, felicitously phrased, brilliantly argued and engaging 525 pages (not counting notes and sources), she traces the evolution of what can only be described as a diabolical system of incipient corporate domination.
Because this system is unprecedented in human history, we have no analytical concepts or descriptive terms for its components. What we cannot name, we cannot understand or resist. Faced with the unprecedented, Zuboff explains, we tend to respond in ways that may have worked in the past, but are inadequate and inappropriate to the new situation.
‘Surveillance capitalism,’ is a term first coined by John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney. Dr. Zuboff has had to invent additional terms to describe its components. “Surveillance capitalism,” she explains, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of market place for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations for many companies are eager to lay bets on our future behavior.“
The competitive pressures of this new market have driven prediction product developers to discover that “the most predictive behavioral data come from intervening in the state of play in order to nudge, coax, tune and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes.” The aim of the game is now to “not only know our behavior, but to shapeour behavior at scale.” This is a new phase of capitalism in which the ‘means of production’ become subordinate to new ‘means of behavioral modification.’
This has given birth to a new species of power that Zuboff calls instrumentalism. Instead of automating production, it aims to automate us.
“Instrumentarian power,” she says, “knows and shapes human behavior toward others’ ends. Instead of armaments and armies, it works its will through the automated medium of an increasingly ubiquitous computational architecture of ‘smart’ networked devices, things and spaces.”
The vision is to create a synthetic, electronically mediated environment which is a kind of grotesquely distorted mirror image of the natural ecology in which ‘everything is connected to everything else.’ It envisions an Internet of Things (IOT) in which your refrigerator, your car, your sex toys, your ‘wearable’ heart monitor and your GPS-enabled running shoes and more will all be united into a meta-entity, linked to everyone else’s in what Zuboff terms the Big Other.
Compliance or Defiance…That is the question.
As Zuboff’s work shows, this instrumentarian system of power already surrounds us to an alarming degree, like the proverbial frog in the soon to be boiling water.
When Google, quickly followed by others, first ventured into these unmapped cyber domains, they were like an invasive species with no predators, pioneers in an unregulated Wild West. Now that we know what they’re up to, is it too late to hop out of the pot and turn off the heat?
Zuboff doesn’t think so. She refuses to buy the corporate myth of technological inevitability. She invites us to ‘be the friction’ which will slow and eventually block this slide into digital domination.
“I say it is not OK to have our best instincts for connection, empathy, and information exploited by a draconian quid pro quo that holds these goods hostage to the pervasive strip search of our lives. It is not OK for every move, emotion, utterance and desire to be catalogued, manipulated and then used to herd us through the future tense for the sake of someone else’s profit.”
It is a question, she says, “of who decides who decides.” Democracy itself is what’s at stake.
“If democracy is to be replenished in the coming decades,” she concludes, “it is up to us to rekindle the sense of outrage and loss over what is being taken from us….Let there be a digital future, but let it be a human future first.
(header image: Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard )