This Week: Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington

This Week: Surveillance Capitalism — with Shoshanah Zuboff, Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: We crave the clarity and wisdom of people like Shoshana Zuboff, people who can see through the upside down mayhem of the strange moment we’re in (okay, it’s now officially longer than a moment) and help re-focus the contorted media and political narratives to reveal a deep truth. It also helps to have a catchy phrase. “Surveillance Capitalism” rang the bell for us this week, a word Shoshana has coined to describe the business model of the internet. She hopes it will be catchy enough to describe in stark terms the nature of this business — the most intrusive surveillance and behavior modification system the world has ever seen. You might say (and lots of young people do) — we know the price we pay for using these services, conducting our private lives on corporate platforms. She doesn’t think we do fully understand the risks and the consequences.

When you’re in the business of predicting peoples’ behavior, and you’re in the business of modifying their behavior in order to predict it better in order to make more money for other people to achieve their commercial ends, we have completely changed the structure of the whole commercial system. Because now, all the people we call “users” are sources of raw material, and the people who are buying predictions about them are the customers. What we have done is create a situation where the means of behavioral modification created by the whole surveillance capitalist system has to actually have very specific, analytical, highly scientific, targeted ways of changing our behavior in order to profit from it.

It’s an inconvenient truth that we have Donald Trump and Russian trolls to thank for bringing the data boom to our attention; Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were so far in the tank with Silicon Valley tech titans and addicted to their money that surely we wouldn’t have seen any meaningful attention— much less meaningful regulation—to address this mess in a Clinton administration. Sorry.

There is substantial journalism around the subject now — and in September Shoshana’s book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power; check her website in the meantime. Jennifer Cobbe has a good primer on surveillance capitalism in the New York Review of Books. Brian Chen wrote a fascinating piece in the Times this week about what he found when he downloaded his Facebook account. Adrian Chen (no relation) in the New Yorker is always wise as well. John Hermann compares the techlash to the financial crisis in the Times Magazine today:

The financial crisis was materially devastating in a way that the privacy crisis couldn’t be: poor stewardship of user data isn’t going to evict people from their homes. But among the lingering and underrated consequences of the collapse of the global financial system was a total loss in trust in the institutions that were supposed to prevent it.

And of course there’s Moira Ben’s magazine, Logic. Next issue on Scale coming soon.

Zach Goldhammer: I find myself less worried about the damage done by surveillance capitalism than by capitalism, period. The neologism, at times, can feel distracting and stoke up luddite-ish impulse to throw one’s iPhone into the river. Temporarily abandoning the internet and going offline for an extended period of time has also become a kind of performance piece for a certain kind of extremely online writer. You can read Vann Newkirk II’s very funny parody of this kind of writing in The Atlantic:

Most days, I am tethered to my phone. I walk around gorging myself on news from my mobile devices, constantly absorbing information, soaking in stories without satiation or satisfaction. I am bombarded by alerts and notifications, retweets and likes and faves. I’ve been on Twitter pretty much continuously for seven whole years, and the algorithm of virality and in-case-you-missed-its has all but replaced the chemical and emotional signals in my brain. My anxiety mounts with each passing day, and even in my sleep — which is of course bracketed by Twitter browsing sessions — I have recurring nightmares about getting ratioed. My fingers burn from touch-screen use, my eyesight is strained, my spine is slowly changing shape to accommodate my hunched-over poring. I am becoming post-human, in the crappiest and least-cool way possible.

That is, until last night, when I decided to do something about it… I smashed my cell phone with a dress shoe, melted the pieces with a hair dryer, stowed the pieces away in a military-grade Faraday bag, and then buried it in a shoebox under a floorboard. As I meditated in total darkness above the broken corpse of my former mobile device, I felt my digital self fade into the wind with the vapor of silicon. I took a deep breath. This was freedom.

The fetishization of going “off-grid” seems to reproduce many of the non-political solutions—or “tools”—of hippie-era counter-culture, particularly the idea that back-to-the-land communal living could liberate individuals from the shackles of modern society. Ironically, as Fred Turner has pointed out, this 60s-style New Communalists ideology is itself deeply in the founding myths of Silicon Valley.

What may be required to create real change is something more than the eternal return to the politics of connection and disconnection. It requires making serious political decisions about financial regulation and democratic control over large corporations—regardless of whether or not their profits come from big oil or big data.

We also shouldn’t exaggerate the strength of surveillance capitalism’s algorithmic grasp. As my own recovering hippie mother learned this week, Facebook actually doesn’t know her very well at all.

Rather than exaggerating the power of surveillance in social media and online platforms, we should pay some more attention to its political futility. As Chris often likes to remind us, internet blogs and podcast in the Bush era seemed to provide new political space for challenging the pro-war consensus in mainstream media. That impulse is, in many ways, alive and well in some corners of Twitter and Facebook today, especially as we inch ever closer to war in Syria. Yet fewer and fewer people have any kind of romantic notion that online activity will do anything to stop the inevitability of another war.

These were just some of the reactions which I found particularly poignant in the wake of the Syria strike. We’ll continue following this story as it unfolds this week. Let us know what you would like to hear us discuss and who you want to hear from:

What We’re Reading: So Many Books, So Little Time!

MM: We interviewed Barbara Ehrenreich on her latest: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. We’ll have our podcast conversation with her up this week.

Richard Powers’ latest: The Overstory, a novel for, by and about trees and tree huggers. It’s amazing, just ask Barbara Kingsolver who reviewed it this week for the Times Book Review. He’ll be at the Harvard Book Store on April 19th and we’ll feature him in a show about trees. Send us your favorite tree geeks.

Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry is our spring Open Source book club book. Grab a copy of this one and read along with us. Of course, we’d read that it includes an account of Lisa’s relationship with Philip Roth, but there’s much more to it than that. Zadie Smith, maybe the best reader we know, loves this one.

We’re also getting caught up on Quinn Slobodian’s book Globalists, which offers an alternative history of neoliberalism stretching back to Austria in the 1920s. It’s a rather different narrative than the usual surface level, anglo- history of neoliberalism which usually begins with Thatcher and Reagan (or, in our version, with Jimmy Carter).

There’s more: doom and gloomers Steve Brill (Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall — and Those Fighting to Reverse It) and Chris Hedges (America: The Farewell Tour), but it’s also poetry month, and we’re loving Erica Funkhouser’s Post and Rail.

If you’re near Boston on May 4th come to an event with Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff that we’re co-sponsoring on Technology and Inequality featuring sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom.


Zoe Chace’s story about Jeff Flake, whom she’s been following for four months. I’ve known Zoe since she was a baby. Gotta love that voice. I’ve known Ben Walker practically since he was a baby, and his series “This Is Not A Drill” is a trip into the reality blues: what’s a fake news pod artist to do in 2018?

Watch: The Fits

Saw this the other night at the Brattle. Can’t stop thinking about it. Girl Powah! (You can read Zach’s previous write up on the fantastical dance film here).

Til next week,

The OS Fighters



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Radio Open Source

Radio Open Source


An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.