Democracy can still end Big Tech’s domination of our lives

Jtwo decades ago, barely 25% of the world’s information was digital. Today, nothing escapes this canvas. It is our common destiny and privilege to live at the dawn of the information civilization. What kind of future will that be? What legacy will we leave for our children, our people and future generations?

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? It is the essential questions of knowledge, authority and power that now define our social order.

In the year 2022, in so many of our societies, it is the corporate surveillance capitalists, starting with the giants – Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon – that hold the answers to each of these questions, even if we don’t have ever elected them to govern.

In just two decades, surveillance capitalism has grown from small startups to a global institutional order intermediating virtually all human engagement with digital architectures in all areas of daily life. Giants and their ecosystems now own all data about all people, data science and scientists, wires, computers and clouds. They control the global market for knowledge production known as artificial intelligence and machine learning. They decide what becomes knowledge, who knows it and for what purpose.

How did it happen?

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, liberal democracies have failed to build a cohesive political vision of a digital century that advances democratic values, principles and governance. This failure has left a void where democracy should be.

The vacuum was most extreme in America, where a radical free-market ideology persuaded lawmakers to hand the new spaces of networked information and communication to private control, while diminishing democratic prerogatives and power.

Young American Internet startups have quickly filled the void with the new economy of the digital age of surveillance capitalism, based on the covert capture and datafication of the human experience. Such taking without asking is normally referred to as “theft”, and it is on the basis of this theft that human data has been aggregated on an industrial scale and claimed as corporate property available for new computing methods, behavioral prediction and sales. The first breakthrough was click-through rate which revolutionized online advertising with monitoring-based targeting. Surveillance capitalism is now revamping all areas of economic activity, from education and healthcare to retail, finance, automotive, agriculture and everything in between. Every so-called “intelligent” product and every so-called “personalized” service is part of this regime.

When human data is the hunted prey, a large amount of bait must continuously fill the traps. The bait was also part of the big catch, including all web pages, books, music, bodies, cars, stores, houses, classrooms, hospitals, maps of all territories , streets, buildings, houses… and all the news . The more bait, the more engagement, the more data mining, the more predictions, the more revenue.

Most critical to understand here is the fate of information under capitalism’s surveillance and its debasement of journalism and journalists. These vast systems of machines are designed to process information like a bulk commodity, like tons of wheat or barrels of oil. They are designed for mass production without any ability to distinguish information integrity from corruption. A leaked Facebook document gives an overview of the industrial production of information. He describes Facebook’s AI hub as “ingesting trillions of data points every day”, to produce “thousands of patterns” and “six million behavioral predictions per second”.

Meaning, facts and truth are simply not there. Why? Because in the logic of surveillance capitalism, the integrity of information has no impact on income. On the contrary, corrupted information has proven to be very good for business as it leads to more mining. the system requires your commitment, but it’s designed to be blind to what engages you.

This structural blindness to information integrity has produced an eternal Christmas morning for every power autocrat, oligarch, bad political actor, troll farm, state-sponsored or grassroots disinformation campaign now able to inject this he wants in the world blood of information without sanction. Thus empowered, they refuse to let journalists get in their way, as machine systems generate revenue by placing corrupt information at the very center of social discourse, extinguishing all vestiges of an autonomous public square. No democracy can survive under these conditions.

From the ancestral disciplines of oral testimony, to the traumatic shift from oral to written, to the institutionalization of the fourth estate, each turning point in the material history of information and communication has affirmed standards of integrity information and the means to enforce these standards. Until now. Instead, news content is pulled from the institutional zones of public and professional laws, rules, norms and standards and transferred to the zone of surveillance capitalism where facts and lies are indistinguishable.

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

Pew’s 2011 Annual Report on “The State of the News Media”, observed, “The future will belong to those who understand changing audience behavior and can target content and advertising to perfectly match the interests of each user. That knowledge — and the expertise to bring it together — increasingly resides in tech companies outside of journalism.

We have stumbled upon a future that we did not choose and would not choose. Ours is an accidental dystopia, a global zero-sum game in which the deepening order of surveillance capitalism produces deep democratic disorder, eroding the social fabric as a prelude to broader competition 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 have not understood the fragility and the threats. We did not fight. We have allowed ourselves to become spectators of our own future.

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

In America, Europe, and almost every part of the world, there has been a total breakdown in public trust in tech companies and the future they would dictate. Tech workers 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 deal on the Digital Services Act. This legislation represents a bold reckoning with history – the first comprehensive declaration of a democratic digital future based on the legitimate authority of democratic rights and the rule of law. The DSA breaks the sound barrier of surveillance capitalism’s aura of inevitability and invincibility. She affirms that the digital must live in the house of democracy. This means that for the first time in two decades, there is hope that the principles of a self-contained demo can survive the digital century.

This third decade must be a crucial turning point, where we get down to the long-awaited work of reinvention, not just regulation. We must consider the most fundamental questions of how to reinvent our connected information domains in ways that advance the aspirations and ideals of democratic societies. This will require new bills of rights and new legal frameworks overseen by new institutions specially designed for our times.

The next few years will be difficult, requiring unfailing strike force and determination. Although surveillance capitalism is the young challenger, it embodies many new forces that have quickly turned into reliable means of domination.

But companies don’t hold all the cards. The young pioneers of internet entrepreneurship once hailed as heroes now look more like confused aging emperors, unhinged by the absolute power our democracies have given them.

And while democracy may be the old, slow titular, it brings advantages to this showdown that are hard to rival. These include the ability to inspire democratic action, to instill fear in adversaries, and most formidable, the legitimate authority and power required to create, impose and enforce the democratic rule of law, based on cherished values, ideals and principles. It teaches us that anything done by people can be undone by people when we come together.

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

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