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Democracy Can Still End Big Tech’s Dominance Over Our Lives

Just two decades ago barely 25% of the world’s information was digital. Today, nothing escapes this web. It is our shared fate and privilege to live at the dawn of information civilization. What kind of future will this be? What legacy will we leave to our children, our people, and the generations beyond?

In an information civilization our lives are rendered as and mediated by information. But what is the quality of this information? Who knows this information? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? These are the essential questions of knowledge, authority, and power that now define our social order.

In the year 2022, across so many of our societies, it is the surveillance capitalist firms, beginning with the giants—Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon—that hold the answers to each of these questions, though we never elected them to govern.

In a mere two decades, surveillance capitalism grew from baby startups into a global institutional order intermediating virtually all human engagement with digital architectures across every domain of everyday life. The giants and their ecosystems now own all the data about all the people, the data science and the scientists, the cables, computers, and clouds. They control the global market in knowledge production known as artificial intelligence and machine learning. They decide what becomes knowledge, who knows it, and to what purpose.

How did this happen?

From the dawn of the world wide web in the mid-1990’s, the liberal democracies failed to construct a coherent political vision of a digital century that advances democratic values, principles, and governance. This failure left a void where democracy should be.

The void was most extreme in America, where an ideology of radical market freedom persuaded lawmakers to consign the new networked information and communication spaces to private control, while diminishing democratic prerogatives and power.

America’s fledgling internet startups quickly filled the void with the novel digital-age economics of surveillance capitalism, based on the secret capture and datafication of human experience. Such taking without asking is normally called “theft,” and it was on the strength of this theft that human data were aggregated on an industrial scale and claimed as corporate property available for new methods of computation, behavioral prediction, and sales. The first break through was the click-through rate that revolutionized online advertising with surveillance-based targeting. Surveillance capitalism now reorders every domain of economic activity, from education and healthcare to retail, finance, automobiles, agriculture, and everything in between. Every product called “smart” and every service called “personalized” is part of this regime.

When human data are the hunted prey, a great deal of bait must continuously fill the traps. The bait was also part of the big taking, including all the web pages, the books, the music, the bodies, cars, shops, homes, classrooms, hospitals, maps of all territories, streets, buildings, houses… and all the news. The more bait, the more engagement, the more data extraction, the more predictions, the more revenues.

Most critical to understand here is the fate of information under surveillance capitalism and its debasement of journalism and journalists. These vast machine systems are designed to treat information as a bulk commodity, like tons of wheat or barrels of oil. They are built for volume production without any capability to distinguish information integrity from corruption. A leaked Facebook document provides a glimpse of the industrial production of information. It describes Facebook’s Artificial intelligence hub as “ingesting trillions of data points each day,” to produce “thousands of models” and “six million behavioral predictions per second.”

Meaning, facts, and truth are simply not in the picture. Why? Because in the logic of surveillance capitalism, information integrity has no bearing on revenues. On the contrary, corrupt information has proven quite good for business, as it drives more extraction. The system demands your engagement, but it is designed to be blind to what engages you.

This structural blindness to information integrity has produced an eternal Christmas morning for every autocratic power, oligarch, political bad actor, troll farm, state-sponsored or grass-roots disinformation campaign now able to inject whatever they please into the global information bloodstream without sanction. Thus empowered, they refuse to let journalists stand in their way, as machine systems drive revenue by vaulting corrupt information into the very center of social discourse, extinguishing all vestiges of an autonomous public square. No democracy can survive these conditions.

From the ancestral disciplines of oral witness to the traumatic shift from the spoken to the written word, to the institutionalization of the Fourth Estate, each turn in the material history of information and communication asserted standards of information integrity and means of enforcing those standards. Until now. Instead, news content is taken from institutional zones of public and professional laws, rules, norms, and standards and transferred to the zone of surveillance capitalism where fact and falsehood are indistinguishable.

Most poignant is how news organizations have had to submit to surveillance capitalism in order to survive.

Pew’s 2011 annual report on “The State of the News Media,” observed, “the future will belong to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user. That knowledge—and the expertise in gathering it—increasingly resides with technology companies outside journalism”

We’ve stumbled into a future that we did not and would not choose. Ours is an accidental dystopia, a global zero-sum game in which the deepening order of surveillance capitalism produces deepening democratic disorder, eroding the social fabric as the prelude to a wider contest over the politics of knowledge in our emerging civilization. We were too complacent, too apathetic, we took democracy and the institutions of the fourth estate for granted. We did not understand the fragility and the threats. We did not fight. We allowed ourselves to become bystanders to our own future.

However, this tide has turned. Today I am more optimistic than I have ever been that the democratic order and journalism’s renewed centrality to that order will win this contest. All roads lead through politics now: collective action and lawmaking. The last three years have been marked by a growing democratic resurgence—a largely unheralded sea change on these frontiers.

In America, Europe, and nearly every world region there has been a wholesale rupture of the public’s faith in the tech companies and the future they would impose. Tech employees are finally breaking ranks and speaking out. Lawmakers are on the move, with a steady crescendo of legislative initiatives, even in a once reluctant America. Last week the EU added rocket fuel to this mix, with a powerful political agreement on the Digital Services Act. This legislation represents a bold reckoning with history––the first comprehensive declaration of a democratic digital future founded on the legitimate authority of democratic rights and rule of law. The DSA breaks the sound barrier of surveillance capitalism’s aura of inevitability and invincibility. It asserts that the digital must live in democracy’s house. It means that for the first time in two decades, there is hope that the principles of a self-governing demos might survive the digital century.

This third decade must be a crucial turning point, when we set ourselves on the long overdue work of reinvention, not simply regulation. We need to reckon with the most basic questions of how to reinvent our connected information domains in ways that advance the aspirations and ideals of democratic societies. This will require new charters of rights and new legal frameworks overseen by new institutions purpose-built for our time.

The next years will be tough, requiring unflinching muscle and determination. Though surveillance capitalism is the young challenger, it embodies many novel strengths that have been rapidly transformed into reliable means of domination.

But the corporations do not hold all the cards. The young entrepreneurial pioneers of the internet once hailed as heroes are now more like addled aging emperors, unhinged by the absolute power that our democracies bestowed upon them.

And while democracy may be the old and slow incumbent, it brings advantages to this showdown that are difficult to rival. These include the ability to inspire democratic action, to inspire fear in adversaries, and most formidable, the legitimate authority and requisite power to make, impose, and enforce the democratic rule of law, based on cherished values, ideals, and principles. It teaches us that whatever has been made by people can be unmade by people when we stand together.

Professor Zuboff delivered an adapted version of this essay as her keynote remarks at the opening ceremony of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Global Conference on May 2, 2022.


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