10 Feb, 2019
“They know everything about us, while their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They predict our futures and configure our behaviour, but for the sake of others’ goals and financial gain. This power to know and modify human behaviour is unprecedented.”
This is Shoshana Zuboff, Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, and no, she is not talking about George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Nor about dark Communists at the heart of Beijing, or spies in the Kremlin.
She is talking about the impending “perfect storm” brewing around the icons of Silicon Valley and the “surveillance capitalism” that has made them billionaires and made us their pawns: “Private human experience is free raw material that can be computed and fashioned into behavioural predictions for production and exchange,” she warns: “You are not the ‘product’ but rather the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus data ripped from your life.”
The perfect storm is brewing for many reasons: first, the rising power of the digital world, with its internet of things that can listen to all parts of our lives, and the artificial intelligence that can predict and manage outcomes before we have even thought of them. We are not just talking about the reach of intelligence agencies, but the power of credit rating agencies to decide whether we can have a mortgage, or of medical insurers to use DNA data to set our health premiums, and even the power of Uber drivers to “blackball” passengers who behave badly.