The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

We are increasingly surrounded by technology, the data collection it employs is not only pervasive but also seemingly unescapable. In 2019 Shoshana Zuboff wrote "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power", which has gone viral (for a social sciences academic-ish book), being cited nearly 10,000 times so far. The book is 691 pages and well beyond possible to summarize in a few lines. And, an amazing amount has changed since 2019 alone. The book may be longer than it needed to be, as the author weaves in personal and historical stories (which add layers of interesting nuance), however these also may attract a broader readership for a book than is more engaging and storytelling than a typical academic one. A few quotes to spark interest for anyone who has not yet read it.

The book begins with a definition: "Sur-veil-lance Cap-i-tal-ism, n. 1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modifications; 3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 4. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy; 5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth; 6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; 7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; 8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above; an overthrow of the people's sovereignty."

"Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others' gain, not ours." (p. 11)

"Google's stores of behavioral surplus now embrace everything in the online milieu: searches, e-mails, texts, photos, songs, messages, videos, locations, communication patterns, attitudes, preferences, interests, faces, emotions, illnesses, social networks, purchases, and so on. A new continent of behavioral surplus is spun each moment from the many virtual threads of our everyday lives as they collide with Google, Facebook, and, more generally, every aspect of the internet's computer-mediated architecture. Indeed, under the direction of surveillance capitalism the global reach of computer mediation is repurposed as an extraction architecture." (p. 128-129)

"Surveillance capitalism's antidemocratic and antiegalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above. It is not a coup d'etat in the classic sense but rather a coup de gens: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse that is Big Other. On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society: the privatization of the central principle of social ordering in the twenty-first century. Like the adelantados and their silent incantations of the Requirimiento, surveillance capitalism operates in the declarative form and imposes the social relations of a premodern absolutist authority. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. In a surreal paradox, this coup is celebrated as "personalization," although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal." (p. 513) 

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I Write What I Like – Steve Biko

Similar to other giants of the struggle against apartheid, we do not have a book written by Steve Biko that pens his ideas. For Robert Sobukwe, a biography was written, while for Steve Biko, we have a collection of his writings and transcripts, first published in 1978. The book contains powerful ideas, some of which are shared below, but also contains writings that are audience- and time-specific, making it a sometimes less than relevant read. I share some of Biko's ideas:

  • "Basically the South African white community is a homogenous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so. Where differences in political opinion exist, they are in the process of trying to justify their position of privilege and their usurpation of power." (p. 19)
  • "We are concerned with that curious bunch of nonconformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do-gooders that goes under all sorts of names – liberals, leftists etc. These are the people who argue that they are not responsible for white racism and the country's "inhumanity to the black man". These are the people who claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man's struggle for a place under the sun… It is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master's son to remove all the conditions leading to the former's enslavement." (p. 20-21)
  • "The myth of integration as propounded under the banner of liberal ideology must be cracked and killed because it makes people believe that something is being done when in actual fact the artificial integrated circles are a soporific on the blacks and provide a vague satisfaction because it is difficult to bring people from different races together in this country, therefore achievement of this is in itself a step forward towards the total liberation of the blacks. Nothing could be more irrelevant and therefore misleading. Those who believe in it are living in a fool's paradise." (p. 22)
  • "We must learn to accept that no group, however benevolent, can ever hand over power to the vanquished on a plate. We must accept that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. As long as we go to Whitey begging cap in hand for emancipation, we are giving him further sanction to continue with his racist and oppressive system. We must realise that our situation is not a mistake on the part of whites but a deliberate act, and that no amount of moral lecturing will persuade the white man to "correct" the situation." (p. 90-91)
  • "I think there is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless." (p. 149)
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The Challenge of Democracy from Below

Edited volumes do not tend to have staying power as a publication – collections of essays pass like most academic articles. Rarely does an edited volume remain an essential reading for decades. "Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below" edited by Bahru Zewde and Siegfried Pausewang (2002) is one of those books. A number of the chapters have been widely cited, and remain key sources for research. This text is also unique in that is was co-published by an Ethiopian civil society organization within Ethiopia (Forum for Social Studies)

Providing a summary of an edited volume is challenging. Rather than try to give a few points, I'll overview the structure and highlight some essential readings. The book is divided into four sections: (1) Traditional systems of governance, (2) The peasant and the management of power and resources, (3) Alternative loci of power, and (4) Alternative voices. Of these, contributions by Bahru Zewde, Oyvind Aadland, Svein Ege, Siegfried Pausewang, Dessalegn Rahmato, Mehret Ayenew and Original Wolde Giorgis are excellent. This book is well worth finding.

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The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies

Why are policies created they way they are? This question is particularly interesting when the policies do not appear to function well. It may be that the 'failing' policies are not actually failing, but serving another, often unstated, purpose. A classic, essential read on this question is "Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies" by Robert H. Bates (1981). The author explains that the book "seeks to go beyond the position of agricultural economists by asking the obvious question: Why should reasonable men adopt public policies that have harmful consequences for the societies they govern? In answering this question, it looks for the social purposes that lead policy-makers to intervene in agricultural markets. Above all, it examines the political calculations that induce governments to intervene in ways which are harmful to the interests of most farmers" (p. 3).

"When African governments intervene in markets, they often do so in ways that harm the short-run interests of most farmers. On the one hand, by sheltering domestic industries from competition, they increase the prices that farmers must pay for goods from the urban areas. One the other, through the use of state power, they lower the prices farmers receive for their products; alternatively, they compete with them in supplying food to the urban markets. And the benefits of subsidies they do confer on farm inputs are reaped by the richer few" (p. 81). Further, these same programs are used to secure power, as incentives and disincentives (p. 110, 112, 117).

The problem of the decision maker is that they "want to move resources from agriculture to industry; and therefore they set prices in markets in order to capture resources from agriculture. Moreover, the governments need resources with which to implement these development programs; and to achieve their objectives, they need foreign exchange. In nations in which agriculture is the greatest source of income and the principal source of exports, it is natural that they should seek to levy revenues from the rural sector… Governments want to stay in power. They must appease powerful interests. And people turn to political action to secure political advantages – rewards they are unable to secure by competing in the marketplace. This book stresses the role of such factors in the formulation of agricultural policy." (p. 4)

Essentially, Bates outlines how governments have used policy to harm the majority of farmers, in seeking to serve other objectives.

While this book is good, it is unlikely it would pass the peer review process today. The author uses a few cases to generalize about "governments of Africa", pulling examples to prove points where most suitable. It is, nonetheless, a important read – one that set the groundwork for much of the political economy research for agricultural policy.

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