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How Free Is Too Free?

Surveillance Capitalism, Market Democracy, and the Dangers of Modern Freedom

ISSUE:  Summer 2019

<i>What is Democracy?</i>. Directed by Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist Films, 2018. 108 minutes.<i>The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power</i>. By Shoshana Zuboff. PublicAffairs, 2019. 704p. HB, $38.

After a fallow period of about fifteen years, in 2014 I returned to driving. Having let my license expire out of pure indolence, I embarked on a process that ended with a road test in deepest Brooklyn. I had no car and no plans to buy one, but within a couple years I was doing more driving than anyone I knew. A needy dog five pounds too big to fly and a sick parent five hundred miles away sent me again and again to the closest rental depot, where I would be handed keys to a compact car of limited but occasionally stark variation. For the same price, I might settle into a vehicle loaded with sixty-seven computers and a heated steering wheel, or a shitbox with no USB port and a tire set to blow on a major Ontario highway. I would study the rental agent’s face as she clacked in the relevant data, looking for some sign of my fate.

I developed a fondness for the lesser Fords—Fiesta, Focus, Fusion—solid little numbers with a smooth ride and decent mileage. Much had changed since I last sat behind a wheel: Today’s cars flash with digital screens and inscrutable features; Google Maps lights the way. Together with the friction went the pleasure of striking down an open road—of feeling free and selfish, gobbling time and space and finite resources. If the fantasy of personal liberty cars once represented was just that, today even the illusion is gone: To drive is simply to travel at greater speed within one’s digital carapace, fielding and obeying its endless stream of signals and commands.

Besides, the roads were never, ever open. I learned to game the logistics, to leave one major city before dawn, arrive in the other before the evening rush. Still, every artery and capillary teemed. Gridlock unnerved me less than the relentless flow. Who are all these people? Where are they going? Having gained some fresh vantage on a clotted freeway, more than once I heard myself muttering that it was all too much. This must be it, I thought: the look and feel of too much freedom.

In an 1819 essay, the Swiss-born writer and politician Benjamin Constant proposed that the ancient ideal of democracy had no place in the modern world, and a new line between personal and political freedom must be drawn. In Sparta and Athens, he writes, the individual exercised power as a member of the collective, but the collective in turn constrained her every move: “All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion.” Democracy is good, but “individual liberty … is the true modern liberty,” with political liberty as its guarantee. Modern individuals need authorities “only to give us the general means of instruction which they can supply, as travelers accept from them the main roads without being told by them which route to take.”

At any rate, true democracy does not scale well. Higher population equals less political influence per capita; to find fulfillment, her place in a bulging order, the modern must define herself as an individual first, a citizen thereafter. Writing at the close of the Napoleonic wars, Constant celebrated commerce as the instrument of both personal and political power: War precedes commerce and commerce replaces war, giving those weary of conflict’s burdens a better option, “a milder and surer means of engaging the interest of others to agree to what suits his own.”

Constant also recognizes the danger of modern freedom, the notion that “absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily. The holders of authority are only too anxious to encourage us to do so.” Constant’s authority-holders are implicitly political. No monarchs or despots but no democratic institutions, either, should be believed in their claim to provide citizens every happiness, “to spare us all sort of troubles, except those of obeying and paying!”

Constant came to be considered a classicist in his own right, emblematic of what is known as classical liberalism, the affiliation of choice for the likes of Paul Ryan and Jordan Peterson. Having been checked, in the wake of two World Wars and an economic collapse, by the liberal principles now associated with the Far Left, the ideas of Constant and his fellow classical liberals John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith were resurrected in the late twentieth century as “neoliberalism,” a label, as Stephen Metcalf has observed, that has been considered a catchall political slur, “a term without any analytic power.” In fact, writes Metcalf, neoliberalism names and organizes the dominant ideology of our time, in which the veneration of free markets and morbid individualism has eroded societies and “invaded the grit of our personal lives.” Metcalf believes it could not have been otherwise, that “there was, from the beginning, an inevitable relationship … between the market as unique discloser of value and guardian of liberty, and our current descent into post-truth and illiberalism.”

The question of how free is too free may have boggled democracies throughout history, but never in quite the way it now boggles ours. The current predicament stands within the life of every individual, pointing at irreconcilable angles her own interests, those of the public she constitutes, and of the planet she inhabits. It might leave her muttering, on a coursing interstate, about autonomy run amok, ranting about damn liberals at a Steve Bannon rally, as one Cincinnati woman did this spring. “If you want to take it back, it’s citizen involvement—you can take the trash out,” Bannon told the woman. “Never in my life did I think I’d like to see a dictator,” the woman replied. “But if there’s going to be one, I want it to be Trump!” Bannon clapped. The crowd roared.

In her livid, methodical account of the rise of what she calls “surveillance capitalism,” Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff blames neoliberalism, among other things, for the rise of Google and its offspring. She describes a study of 1,400 law review articles: Published between 1980 and 2005, their unifying proposition was that of government as coercive body, and industry regulation as a form of authoritarianism. They pointed to self-regulation as a solution to the threat posed by meddling governments: Firms could set their own terms, evaluate their own compliance with those terms, “and even judge their own conduct,” writes Zuboff. “By the time of Google’s public offering in 2004, self-regulation was fully enshrined within government and across the business community as the most effective tool for regulation without coercion and the antidote to any inclination toward collectivism and the centralization of power.”

According to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, this was a key step in our becoming far less free than we seem to believe. In order to finally turn a profit, in the wake of the dot-com crash, Google made a pioneering discovery: The people using its free search engine were generating a surplus of data; rendered as a commodity, human experience could be subjected to market dynamics and sold as what Zuboff calls “behavioral futures.” One hears this now widely known practice described as a matter of mining, scraping, extraction—an act of physical force. In fact, surveillance capitalism relies on its invisibility, a touch that when it is perceived at all might be mistaken for a caress. Under the banner of increased convenience, connectivity, freedom, and personalization, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon turn individuals into lucrative but expendable data sets, useful insofar as predictions about their future behavior yield a market value.

Just as they depended on the erosion of democratic processes for their success, these companies operate to antidemocratic effect. An ardent neologist, Zuboff calls their combined effort “Big Other,” an entity manifest in the apparently friendly, benign TV that watches you, the wristband that monitors you, the house that knows you, the being that answers your questions and farts on command. Big Other “acts on behalf of an unprecedented assembly of commercial operations that must modify human behavior as a condition of commercial success. It replaces legitimate contract, the rule of law, politics, and social trust with a new form of sovereignty and its privately administered regime of reinforcements.”

Weighted by repetition and Zuboff’s thudding way with metaphor, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is in its sum a fearful document: focused, meticulous, and deeply persuasive. Written in a style at once breathless and didactic, it reads like a digital paranoiac’s dream: They really are out to get you. They pretty much already have you, Zuboff makes plain, and the bargain we have unwittingly made to be counted not as citizens nor individuals but users and clickers—brood mares on the data farm—has furthered social and cultural divides, our alienation from ourselves and one another. Not governments but corporations and finance conglomerates now hold ultimate authority, and they are focused in their efforts to “drive and preserve an extreme free-market agenda at the expense of democracy.”

Speaking with Naomi Klein this spring, Zuboff returned to a central theme of her book: To beat surveillance capitalism, we must “activate the resources of our democratic institutions.” I may have imagined Klein wincing when Zuboff said we still needed capitalism, that in fact there is “an imperfect equilibrium that we call ‘market democracy’ that can serve society well.” Surveillance capitalism, she takes care to show, did not emerge in a vacuum: Larry Page’s vision for a world in which our whole lives would be searchable “perfectly reflects the history of capitalism,” an enterprise based in “taking things that live outside the market sphere and declaring their new life as market commodities.” But Zuboff does not see a company like Google as a natural extension of the capitalist project and its quest for perpetual growth. Rather, the surveillance merchants are a rogue, totalizing mutation of the real thing; they have overturned the traditional capitalist order, pushing us “toward a society in which capitalism does not function as a means to economic or political institutions.”

The example of this traditional ideal to which Zuboff most often returns is that of Henry Ford and his belief that “mass production begins in the perception of a public need.” As Zuboff tells it, people wanted affordable cars, Ford made them, and therein lay a happy reciprocity; democracy not only survived but lived to modulate this new market form. By insisting on the novelty of surveillance capitalism, “a boundary-less form that ignores older distinctions between market and society, market and world, or market and person,” Zuboff refuses the notion that all of those older distinctions were built to break down in precisely the way they did. She fails to reckon with the extent to which the capitalist norms she endorses shifted not just the economy but the culture (not to mention the health of the planet), creating the climate of self-interest, consumption, and limitlessness that helped shape the world and the values shared by you and me and Larry Page.

As of last year, there were 1.26 vehicles on the road for every licensed driver in the US, a threshold some call “peak motorization.” The American auto industry has already died and resurrected itself once—as a loan financier. Following last year’s announcement that Ford would cease production of almost all of its passenger cars, CEO Jim Hackett announced that the company’s future lies in surveillance. Their one hundred million customers have been generating untapped data all this time, said Hackett, their choices and habits unmonetized, every turn, stop, and speeding jag lost to the market winds. And where’s the sense in that?

What is market democracy? What is democracy? The answer to the first question is often posed in deceptively simple, amiable terms, as in Zuboff’s précis of Thomas Piketty: Not to be eaten raw, “capitalism, like sausage, is meant to be cooked by a democratic society.” This spring, Elizabeth Warren told Stephen Colbert that she believes in markets, “but markets need rules and they need a cop on the beat to enforce those rules.” Such distillations seem unlikely to inspire an audience increasingly divided into those who see market democracy as either a contradiction or a redundancy in terms.

In her third feature documentary, filmmaker and activist Astra Taylor poses to various scholars (including Cornel West, Silvia Federici, and Wendy Brown), civilians, schoolchildren, and at least one refugee a version of the film’s title question: What Is Democracy? The result is a sort of Socratic journey, one that moves from Greece to the US, and points in between, finding more questions and a growing gap between the democratic ideal and reality. As challenging as it is accessible, the film is loose, digressive, organized not by story but a series of ideas and observations: about what democracy has been and what it should be; where it has gone wrong and why it is destined to fail; how to make democracy out of an undemocratic people; and whether it is worth the faithful pursuit it demands.

A main framing device is Taylor’s conversation with Federici, which takes place in Siena, where the pair contemplate an Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco titled The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government. Commissioned in the 1330s, Federici describes the tri-paneled painting as propaganda for Siena’s oligarchy, the ruling class in one of the earliest merchant-banking societies. Asserting their values as the holiest and their leadership as a guarantee of peace and prosperity was a matter of maintaining power. In Siena the seeds of capitalism—not democracy—took deepest root.

If, as Federici claims, democracy must be defined from below, how far down—and across—is it prudent or even plausible to go? It was not majority rule, after all, that ended slavery or integrated schools, as West reminds us, and even the most forward-looking democracies have until the last century disenfranchised half the population. A growing quantity of evidence suggests that fewer and fewer Americans understand or care to defend democratic values and norms, a development that feels folded into the partisan crevasse threatening to swallow even the memory of civilized discourse. Over the last decade, conservative legislators in states including Texas, Georgia, and Michigan have acted to purge the words “democracy” and “democratic” from K–12 social studies curricula descriptions of American government.

One could imagine the place of Taylor’s film in the classroom, though one would first have to imagine the kind of classroom this country appears bent on destroying. It is a reminder, as political theorist Wendy Brown points out, that to define democracy from below we must first cultivate the taste for it across a vast middle, creating a cultural amenability toward a system it is not in our nature to sustain. It’s not a task for Russian bots or the new robber barons, who would love to spare us every trouble, except that of obeying and paying. It is not a matter of engagement as we know it now—a like, a comment, a thing to buy off Instagram. The means are phenomenal, obscure by design but beginning, perhaps, in the perception of almighty public need. The bargain, as Taylor makes plain, has never been clean. If not worth making, it demands a democratic sort of pondering: the willingness of more individuals than not to educate themselves, act accordingly, and be free. 


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