What is vigilant capitalism and why should we care

capitalismo vigilantecapitalismo vigilante

A book on “vigilant capitalism” dialogues with people concerned with the “commodification” of virtual life.

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“Pay attention”.

It is a common exhortation, perhaps from a panicked parent to a mischievous child or from a tolerant teacher to a sleepy student, or from a Zen master to his absent-minded disciple. As well as our time, our attention is also limited and, therefore, what we dedicate our attention to is very important.

We spent a few hours of our lives paying attention to a book about privacy in the digital world and written by the philosopher and psychologist Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff’s book describes the evolution and impact of advertising on services like Google and Facebook. Therefore, perhaps she could have called her book “Paying Attention” [aqui o autor faz um trocadilho que poderia ser traduzido literalmente como “pagando a atenção”]. But these two words are too neutral and neutral to talk about virtual transactions that involve your attention.

Zuboff’s book is highly opinionated and all opinions support the thesis that many innovations in the technology sector, especially those created by Google, harm both consumers and society. So the title she actually chose is far more fitting: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

[A era do capitalismo vigilante: a luta por um futuro humano na nova fronteira do poder].

Title loaded

As in the entire book, no one should consider the words “vigilant” and “capitalism” in the title as neutral. Each of these words expresses a fundamental aspect of Zuboff’s vision of the power dynamics at work in the commercial collection and personal use of information.

The word “vigilance” expresses someone or something that is watching something else from a higher position. The word entered the English lexicon from the “surveillance committees

” (Observation Committees) created during the Reign of Terror in France. In this context, surveillance led to executions.The same goes for “capitalism”. Although the word is sometimes used benignly today by those who advocate free markets and trade, the word “capitalism” got off to a bad start. Historian Fernand Braudel tells how the first to use the word described a kind of social pathology that places the search for wealth as central to social life.

Zuboff’s combination of “surveillance” and “capitalism”, as it represents the innovations it attacks as an unfair and unfair power dynamic. full of greed, humiliating them from the beginning of the argument. The semantics of “watchful capitalism” turns into a convincing argument even before the reader reads the first page. The title, therefore, reveals that Professor Zuboff is a supporter of one side in this old debate.

And the title is just the beginning. On the first page of the book, Zuboff defines vigilant capitalism as “a parasitic economic logic (…) an absurd mutation” and “an elite coup”. Zuboff rarely has anything good to say about a set of companies that have created tremendous economic value for the world and created beneficial services to consumers. Despite this partisan vision under which his bombastic rhetoric emerges – which will certainly intrigue and irritate those who are not part of his choir – Zuboff identifies three themes present in the information economy and which are worth exploring.

Themes that are worth the analysis

First of all, Zuboff is concerned about excessive commercialization of virtual life. This criticism is not restricted to the virtual world – it is a common concern of relatively wealthy people who prefer small stores downtown, while their less fortunate counterparts take advantage of the low prices of Walmart. Still, everyone is likely to agree that there should be real and virtual spaces not dominated by marketers advertising their wares. But taking into account that, as in the retail example, people set different limits for different places, wouldn’t it be better to allow the existence of multiple options?

Secondly, Zuboff says that much of the acquisition of personal information by companies is morally or legally wrong. She says that tech companies are “expropriating” people of information about themselves, suggesting that companies are, in essence, stealing personal information. But that doesn’t reflect our online experience.A most of the data Google collects about me is obtained through my interaction with other people’s computers. Why would observing this interaction be “theft”? As for the fact that consumers are actively giving up information, they are often doing so by submitting to a contract. Zuboff says there is no benefit to this exchange of information, except for companies. This may come as a surprise to those who have already used commercially important services available thanks to this information and which companies use to satisfy the interests of both consumers and the company itself,

Finally, Zuboff says that consumers are relatively unable to understand how personal information is collected, stored, shared and used. We agree. Users do not understand the risks of this. Companies are in a relative power relationship by gathering more information than they need, sometimes using it in ways that the consumer would not want. But risk tolerance in this space is quite different (except for identity theft) and skeptics are unlikely to be able to accurately calculate that risk. Given the problem of discerning the real interests of consumers and the various possible compensations, it is even arrogant to want to decide for consumers which terms they can and cannot agree to.

Although Zuboff’s book emphasizes the relatively new and weak power imbalance between users and internet companies like Google, it does doesn’t say much about a more persistent and strong imbalance: that between the government and the citizen.

Unlike Google, the government can arrest you. There is good reason – unexplored by Zuboff – for wanting to observe and restrict how the government accesses our personal information from data collected by these companies. To do this, we must reconsider the legal standards that guarantee government access to personal information and that do not pass the probable cause test guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. The book would be better if it recognized that the same government that, according to the author, should protect us from vigilant capitalism is the government that threatens human beings – especially the disenfranchised – through the same old surveillance.

Surveillance Capitalism

was written to stimulate the already convinced, not to convince the skeptics. Starting with the semantically powerful title, Zuboff provokes the reader. But when it comes to taking into account policies capable of solving the problems it raises, the best thing to do is to pay attention to what it omits.

Neil Chilson is a researcher at Stand Together and the Charles Koch Institute. Its area of ​​expertise is technology and innovation.

© 1280 FEE. Published with permission. Original in English

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