Surveillance Capitalism & the Commodification of Data

Melissa Obi

The absorption of data has lent itself to commodification. Everything about you is for profit. Within a very short period of time, technological technocrats have developed new business models, shifted power relations and, in the end, created a new form of capitalism, “Surveillance Capitalism.”  This is a new form of capitalism that also preys and should be given more attention. It has the potential to have serious effects and influence on political and economic paradigms.

A White House report some previous years ago on Technology firms concluded that the technological trajectory is that more and more data will be generated about individuals and will persist under the control of Technology firms. Google along with every other social media platform retains individual search histories that were also made available to state security and law enforcement, along with retail outlets.

We need to be aware of what is happening and not be complacent about the surveillance we are undergoing. How this impacts or changes the way we engage with technology is a tough question. Many of us know that our data is being taken without our consent then used in attempt to manipulate us into becoming more predictable and more reliable consumers. We are but bystanders.

Many have never heard the term epistemic inequality as it relates to surveillance capitalism. It is the privatization and commodification of knowledge. Surveillance Capitalism and Behavior Capitalism are mutually inclusive. Surveillance capitalism is the collection of behavioral data.  The new business model for technocrats is digital technologies.

In Dr. Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. She describes how Surveillance capitalism, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.

Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior.”

This is to align with totalitarianism.  Companies from all walks of life compete for our behavioral data so they can predict what, when, and how we will act, feel, want, and or presume to need. Surveillance capitalism has made our behavior a coveted product. This divides society into the watchers and the watched. The battle over who owns and controls personal data will be a central one in the years and decades ahead. Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon happily take our data in exchange for convenience, lower prices or free services, but individuals and businesses are beginning to understand the value of controlling their data instead of simply handing it over to the world’s largest technology companies. The battle to regain control over that data could also be starting in earnest.

IT companies had to find business models that would continue providing a growing return to their venture capital funders. In order to keep increasing the user base, it was essential for free services to continue to be free of charge for the end user, all social media platforms. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they chose to embed advertisements to generate revenue. However, the way in which they implemented this turned out to make these technocrats highly profitable at the expense of those who utilize their platforms.

Instead of merely placing ads, user actions were tracked and recorded in large data bases. When computer scientists at these companies invented algorithms to effectively analyze the giant volumes of data and employed statistical methods to derive predictions from user profiles, they invented a new business model that turned out to be so profitable that even companies that are financed by fees also adopted this practice. Based on this data, they generate revenue primarily by selling customized advertising. User data becomes much more valuable for this in contexts of past and planned purchases, when data corresponding to the same user can be connected across different contexts to generate a significantly more sophisticated user profile, profile data can be compared and correlated to similar profiles from the database, and it serves as a basis for behavioral manipulation. Which connects behavioral capitalism and surveillance capitalism.

Since it is their predictive and manipulative capital, usually the data is not sold directly, as that would undermine the basis of their business model. Although smaller companies exist that employ trackers and presumably serve as additional data suppliers, these transfers of user data are typically not visible to the end user. For the big IT companies instead, revenue is generated by predicting and influencing user behavior to market and profit off of.

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