Google and surveillance capitalism

Photo by John Lee from Pexels.

In 2018 Google quietly removed all mentions of its unofficial motto from its code of conduct. “Don’t be evil” had supposedly been part of the tech giant’s DNA since 2000 though as Gizmodo reported, when Google rebadged as Alphabet in 2015 it became “Do the Right Thing”. The code was not just about providing users unbiased access to information it was also about doing the right thing more generally, “following the law, acting honorably, and treating co-workers with courtesy and respect.” However as a stunning 2019 book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff shows, Google has blatantly long stopped doing the right thing so it is no surprise the phrase has been quietly retired.

Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as something which unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Though some data is used improve service and products, the rest is declared as proprietorial “behavioural surplus”, a term Zuboff repeatedly uses in her book. This surplus is fed into machine intelligence to produce prediction products which are traded in a “behavioural futures market”. The intention is not just to know about behaviour but to shape it at scale. This shaping is now leaving the digital world and becoming a day-to-day reality through the “Internet of Things”. Digital connection is a means to others’ commercial ends as surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of human experience.

Zuboff says surveillance capitalism was invented by Google in the early 2000s though the other tech giants, especially Facebook were quick to learn the lessons of applying big data to commercial success. They saw that Google got away with its invasive actions as the law struggled to catch up, or was merely compliant. The timing of 9/11 helped as the US security apparatus to nurture and mimic surveillance capitalism’s capabilities for its own promise of certainty and total knowledge. Zuboff points out the error in the phrase “if it is free, then you are the product.” We are not the customers of surveillance capitalism, we provide its crucial surplus. Its actual customers are businesses that trade in its markets for future behaviour. This new knowledge is from us, but not for us. This huge market, Zuboff says, is likely to eclipse ownership of the means of production “as the fountainhead of capitalist wealth in the 21st century.”

It didn’t always have to be this way. Zuboff notes the early 2000s Georgia Tech experiment of the “Aware Home“. It predated the smart home by 20 years but was underpinned by trust and the sovereignty of the individual who had knowledge and control of the distribution of their information. But the rise of neoliberal economics has allowed what was once defined as “data exhaust” to become “behavioural surplus”. As Piketty described in Capital in the 21st Century the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth and financial elites use their outsize earnings to fund political capture to protect their interests. The growth of surveillance capitalism was helped by the byzantine click-wrap agreements (upheld by courts) most users simply say yes to rather than be bogged down in hours of semantic text.

Google is notoriously secretive but Zuboff has analysed the scholarly articles of its chief economist Hal Varian which explore “computer-mediated transactions” and their transformation economic effect. Varian noted that computers had several new modern uses including “data extraction and analysis” and Google proudly says it is at the forefront of machine intelligence innovation. Varian says they gather large volumes of “evidence of relationships of interest” to which they apply “learning algorithms to understand and generalise”. Google’s invention of targetted advertising gave them a profitable start but it became the cornerstone of untold riches when it was put to the use of surveillance capitalism.

Stanford graduates Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company in 1998 two years after the Mosaic browser opened the doors of the World Wide Web. Their search facility was immediately popular and produced collateral data such as patterns, spelling, phrasing and location which was initially ignored. They hired Amit Patel to start data mining these accidental caches and he concluded they provided a “broad sensor of human behaviour”. Google engineers turned the “data exhaust” into a recursive learning system that improved search and spawned innovations such as spell check, translation and voice recognition.

Initially Google lived up to its “don’t be evil” mantra, reinvesting the user data into improved products. The problem was the products were given away freely and Google was not making money. It had a small AdWords team which generated modest profits from sponsored ads linked to key words but initially most revenue came from licensing agreements with the likes of Yahoo and Japan’s BIGLOBE. In 2002 the New York Times doubted Google could create a business model as good as its technology.

The Dot Com Crash of 2000 had left Silicon Valley under siege and Google investors were thinking about pulling out. Page and Brin had to do something and they abandoned their lukewarm hostility to advertising. They decided to choose keywords instead of leaving it up to advertisers. They would use the raw materials used to improve search to meet this new objective. In 2002 Eric Schmidt was appointed CEO with a mission to understand the predictive power of their massive store of data and turn it into surveillance surplus. Initially that meant tying the price per click to the likelihood someone would actually click on the link. Google would mine data to match ads to interests. This was approaching the holy grail of advertising: providing the message at the right time when it might influence behaviour.

At this point Google came up against the friction of privacy requirements. Many users were simply not giving information to make a full “user profile” so Google conscientiously overcame these decision rights deriving the missing data from online activity or from third-party services. As Zuboff said targeted advertising turned Google from its advocacy-oriented founding to behavioural surveillance as a full-blown logic of accumulation. Google used its semantic analysis and artificial intelligence to squeeze more meaning from its data sets. That behavioural surplus – at scale – was a game changer and a zero-cost asset that would lead to enormous profits in the years to come.

Google was transformed into a rapacious beast that allowed no limits on what it could find and take. It asked no permission and pursued – and continues to pursue – its own values ahead of the social contracts others are bound to. Facebook was quick to learn the lesson as it monetised its growing audience in the 2000s. They hired Google executive Sheryl Sandberg as chief operating officer. Sandberg saw Facebook’s social graph as a massive potential source of behavioural surplus. There they could not just satisfy demand but create demand using Facebook’s conversational culture. Together, Facebook and Google made surveillance capitalism the default model of capitalism on the web, drawing in imitators in every sector. They all understand the value of Google’s discovery which is that we are less valuable than other’s bets on our future behaviour.

The goal is to automate us and almost 20 years on, they are enormously successful with ever more ways to garner behavioural surplus as we live our lives increasingly online. The focus is moving from predicting individual behaviour to the behaviour of entire populations. Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Self regulation has not worked as surveillance capitalists declared their right to know, to decide who knows, and to decide who decides. As Zuboff calls it, it is market-driven coup from above: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse of digital technology. She said we begin any fightback to name the problem as the first step toward taming. “My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young,” Zuboff said.

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