This is a guest post by Nikhil Venkatesh, a PhD candidate in Philosophy at University College London, and a fellow of the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research. It draws on his paper ‘Surveillance Capitalism: a Marx-inspired account’.
On Monday 4th October, mistakes in a routine maintenance task led to Facebook’s servers disconnecting from the Internet. For six hours people across the world were unable to use Facebook and other platforms the company owns such as Instagram and WhatsApp.
The outage had serious consequences. Billions of people use these platforms, not just to gossip and share memes but to do their jobs and to reach their families. Orders and sales were missed, and so were births and deaths. At the same time, many found those six hours liberating: a chance to get things done undistracted. But what if the outage had gone on for weeks, months, or forever? Would you have been able to cope?
The previous day, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen revealed herself as the source for a Wall Street Journal series examining how the company’s products ‘harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy’. This is the latest in a continuous stream of Facebook-related scandals: Cambridge Analytica and Brexit, Russian interference and Trump, genocide in Myanmar, the ongoing presence of scams and hate speech, and the spread of conspiracy theories about the pandemic and the vaccine which led the President of the United States, no less, to accuse Facebook of ‘killing people’. Each time a scandal appears, many of us consider quitting Facebook’s platforms. How could you participate in a social network that does these awful things?
For most people, the answer is simply: how could you not? Facebook’s platforms are increasingly necessary. Humans need social participation: we need to keep in touch with friends and family, to know what’s going on in the world, to share our lives with others. It is increasingly difficult to meet these needs without using Facebook’s platforms, or those owned by its rivals Google or Microsoft. Shoshana Zuboff calls these firms ‘surveillance capitalists’, due to their focus on gathering personal data. Surveillance capitalists control the most popular messaging and email services, the most popular platforms for sharing photographs, videos and personal news, the most popular internet browsers and phone and computer operating systems. Increasingly, if you don’t use Facebook, you don’t get invited to parties; if you don’t use YouTube (owned by Google), you never saw the funny video everyone is talking about. Moreover, for many people these platforms are necessary for finding or doing their jobs, and accessing essential services. Of course, there are people who live happily without social media. But they are often people with strong offline social networks, usually forged in the pre-internet age. Even so, they pay a cost of some degree of social exclusion, and as more people and thus more social activities happen through these platforms, those costs will increase.
The necessity of using these platforms is akin to the necessity of work. In a capitalist economy, most people have no choice but to get a job. Our choicelessness is not that of a slave: usually, nobody physically forces us to work. Instead, we have no choice because working is the only way we can access the means of survival (food, shelter, and so on). We sell our labour to industrial capitalists in return for those means (via a wage). We can understand our relationship with surveillance capitalists along similar lines. Nobody forces us to use their platforms. However, for many of us, doing so is the only way we can access the means of social participation. Instead of selling them our labour, we sell them our data – in return, rather than paying us a wage they let us use their platforms, and thus make the connections we need to have a social life.
For Marx, the exchange between the worker and industrial capitalist is both exploitative and alienating. Workers are exploited in that their need for something (a wage) is used by their employer to get something from them (their labour) that is of greater value. Alienation may be roughly defined as the separation of someone from something which belongs close to them. Workers are alienated from what they produce when it is taken from them to be sold by the capitalist; and also from their own bodies which are controlled by the capitalist during the working day. Whilst what we produce could express our personality, under capitalism our production is determined by market forces, not our own values. And capitalists and workers relate to one another not as fellow humans but as instruments – they use one another to get what they need.
Similar problems arise in our use of surveillance capitalist platforms. Users are exploited; our need for social participation being used to force us to give up our data. This data is valuable for firms like Facebook and Google, as it allows them to target advertising. And similar forms of alienation arise. When we use these platforms, our behaviour – every click, like, message, movement – is transformed into a commodity, data, which is taken from us by the surveillance capitalist firms. The value of this data is determined not by what it means to us but by what it can be used to sell. And surveillance capitalists do not care about their users any more than industrial capitalists do about their workers: we are simply there to produce more engagement, more connections, more data. As an infamous memo written in 2016 by Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth says:
We connect people. That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love… That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And we still connect people. The ugly truth is that… anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good. It is perhaps the only area where metrics do tell the whole story as far as we are concerned.
If we analyse firms like Google and Facebook through this Marxian lens, we can see that two popular policies for dealing with them will be insufficient. One is tighter privacy laws, such that data can only be taken from users with their explicit consent. It is certainly true that surveillance capitalists often take data from users surreptitiously, and this is wrong. However, if I am right, then even when we are fully aware that our data will be taken from us, we will still consent to it. We will consent because, since we need social participation, we have no choice but to say ‘yes’ to whatever deal surveillance capitalists offer us. (Workers also consent to contracts that exploit their labour.) Another much-discussed policy is breaking up these big corporations. Again, it is true that companies can become too dominant in a sector and breaking up Facebook and Google would reduce some of their power to exploit. But simply creating many smaller surveillance capitalist firms would not resolve the alienation of users. This will go on as long as people need platforms that are driven by gathering and commodifying users’ data, however many and whatever size those platforms are.
Two different policies suggest themselves. One is to restore possibilities for socialising without social media. It is no accident that surveillance capitalism has grown alongside a privatisation of public space and a decline in civil, sporting, religious and political membership organisations. The second is to run social media in a way that is not centred around the exploitation and alienation of users. Next time Facebook’s servers go down, could we use the time to imagine platforms that are not run for profit, but rather co-operatively owned by users, for their own benefit?