Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism. Big-tech-brother. Architecture that is more than green. Paradox Mystery format. More-than-human design. — No.64

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

A very Warren Ellis issue this week. I couldn’t get his Normal and abyss gaze out of my head after reading the first couple of pieces below and I’m linking to him concerning book formats in Miscellany. Enjoy.

A year ago: Ursula K. Le Guin passed and I linked, among other things, to her Rant About “Technology”.

Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism

An excellent interview with Shoshana Zuboff about her new book on surveillance capitalism. Most of the actual ideas have already been covered here in one way or another, including some articles by Zuboff. Very much worth a read though, some of the phrasing and ways of presenting her ideas are super useful in understanding the general thesis and where we are right now. Some notes:

  • The watchers and the watched, and “the division of learning in society.”
  • They (Google, then others) appropriated our “data exhaust,” it wasn’t really there’s to take. (Reminds me of some of the “rights” companies appropriate over-reaching through copyright.)
  • It didn’t have to be this way, the same technologies could have been used in other ways.
  • The use of GAFA, GAFAM, and FANGS is starting to be problematic for me, as not all companies in those acronyms are surveillance capitalists.
  • Her use of “‘informate,’ which I use to mean to translate things, processes, behaviours, and so forth into information.”

[F]rom the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. […]

The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. […]

Sheryl Sandberg, says Zuboff, played the role of Typhoid Mary, bringing surveillance capitalism from Google to Facebook.

It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy. […]

Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free. […]

This duality set information technology apart from earlier generations of technology: information technology produces new knowledge territories by virtue of its informating capability, always turning the world into information. The result is that these new knowledge territories become the subject of political conflict. […]

So our participation is best explained in terms of necessity, dependency, the foreclosure of alternatives, and enforced ignorance. […]

Users might get “ownership” of the data that they give to surveillance capitalists in the first place, but they will not get ownership of the surplus or the predictions gleaned from it – not without new legal concepts built on an understanding of these operations.

Is Big Tech Merging With Big Brother?

Follow the Zuboff interview with this one, on the ever tighter link between big tech and government. Amazon in particular seems in very good and scary position. Frankly, I’m always a bit astonished that acronym agencies outsource to the cloud.

This made Amazon the sole provider of cloud services across “the full range of data classifications, including Unclassified, Sensitive, Secret, and Top Secret,” according to an Amazon corporate press release. […]

Last year the agency moved most of its data into a new classified computing environment known as the Intelligence Community GovCloud, an integrated “big data fusion environment,” as the news site NextGov described it, that allows government analysts to “connect the dots” across all available data sources, whether classified or not. […]

With so many pots of gold waiting at the end of the Washington, DC, rainbow, it seems like a small matter for tech companies to turn over our personal data—which legally speaking, is actually their data—to the spy agencies that guarantee their profits. This is the threat that is now emerging in plain sight. It is something we should reckon with now, before it’s too late. […]

A set of key social functions—communicating ideas and information [media]—has been transferred from one set of companies, operating under one set of laws and values, to another, much more powerful set of companies, which operate under different laws and understand themselves in a different way. […]


Exit option democracy

I like Doug’s pragmatic tech approach for this year and in the end it fits with the bleak pieces above; this is beyond individual choices, we need governments to step in.

What I do accept, though, is that Vertesi’s findings show that ‘exit democracy’ isn’t really an option here, so the world of technology isn’t really democratic. My takeaway from all this, and the reason for my pragmatic approach this year, is that it’s up to governments to do something about all this.

5G: if you build it, we will fill it

Benedict Evans with a quick overview of what 5G might look like and be used for.

We don’t know what yet, exactly, though we can make some early guesses, but the creativity of entrepreneurs and platforms and the choices of consumers will decide. This is the great thing about the decentralized, permissionless innovation of the internet – telcos don’t need to decide in advance what the use cases are, any more than Intel had to decide what the use cases for faster CPUs would be.


“We need architecture that is more than just green”

Darran Anderson on building / preparing cities for the coming climate-changed decades, considering the urban with, and as, the environment, and reducing impact in the countryside. Anderson also highlights some of the useless posturing and links to multiple projects to illustrate his discourse.

Designing for the actual world, as it will unfold for the vast majority of people, is a task best approached with what philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. […]

To survive, cities will have to embrace their environmental aspect while the countryside will have to be increasingly engineered in concentrated spaces, in order to save the wider environment. […]

Much of the focus on smart cities has been geared towards surveillance or sociological efficiencies, but data-driven technology could be used to drive and support urban ecosystems, minimising waste and energy and maximising growth.

  • Inside China’s leading ‘sponge city’: Wuhan’s war with water. “[O]ne of the country’s first 16 “sponge cities” – areas piloting ecologically friendly alternatives to traditional flood defences and drainage systems.”
  • Alternative Camden. “A new take on an innovation district, set up to give people the freedom to create a more democratic and inclusive city. … Our mission is to kick start a series of experiments to explore how we want technology to shape Camden.”
  • Exxon’s Insane Ideas for Combating Climate Change. “In 1997, scientists working for the oil company offered visionary solutions for climate change. The only problem? Their plans might destroy the earth in the process.”

By Sjef van Gaalen, the futures cone of fossil-fuel phase-out


Paradox Mystery format

Someone asked Warren Ellis what he would do if he was running a comics publishing company, he referred to this intriguing Paradox Mystery format (and the Marber grid for Penguin). Last week at our editorially minded meetup, we discussed Mod’s piece from No.62 and the most interesting to me is that he talks about “books” but it’s actually “publications.” Meaning that I see it as a reminder that we haven’t tried all formats and combinations, that there are still new ones to invent. Ellis concludes the section with this, which seems to go along the same line of thought:

The Paradox Mystery books are, of course, from the mid-Nineties. Before manga exploded in the bookstore market. What were outliers back then are possibly right in the zone today. Nobody’s listened to me about this over the last twenty years and nobody will listen to me about it now.  And quite rightly, because I’m entirely mad.

I thought he was unto something with his Summon Books series. Alas…

More than HumanCentered Design

A rare combination here by Anab Jain, calling for design that considers not only humans but our relationships with nature, and the emerging “non-human entities, increasingly autonomous things and system.” Also have a look for Superflux’s ‘Mitigation of Shock’ installation.

I considered a “more-than-human” centred approach. Where humans beings are not at the centre of the universe and the centre of everything. Where we consider ourselves as deeply entangled in relationships with other species and non-human entities. […]

I want to conclude with a call to arms, a call to closely consider our relationships (both human and non-human) with the world within which we live and work. A call to consider ourselves in relationship with, not as masters of, the deeper ecology around and within us. And to embody this in our actions. I will leave you with this quote by the 16th century philosopher Miyamoto Musashi: Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.