The Edge of Surveillance Capitalism
2019 is the year of surveillance capitalism. It is not necessarily the year where the dams broke and some dramatic event pronounced the arrival of dystopian reality, but perhaps the year where progressive deterioration and the introduction of this term, Surveillance Capitalism, by economist Shoshana Zuboff, has made it clear that 1984 has not just arrived: We might already be past it.
In its essence the term describes a new era of capitalist accumulation resulting in new power structures that remain largely uncontested. In a 2015 essay Shoshana Zuboff summarized it as this: large technology companies gather data about individuals and their every day lives, through connected objects, computer-mediated economic and social transactions (essentially online shopping and likes), surveillance cameras of all forms including Google Street View and the general surveillance of all online behavior. This extraction is not done through consent, but largely by invading areas unprotected by law, until someone complains. These data are then analysed and sold, and the results presented back to the sources of data, now with the aim of extracting revenue. Tools developed with this data, such as Google Maps for example, are primarily tools to extract more data and secondarily tools useful to users, although: the more essential they are, the more they are used, the more data they extract. In this paradigm people are no longer customers or employees, whose employers have an interest in paying them well so that they can shop more (a model of capitalism that today seems outdated and almost benign), but simply sources of data. Monitoring behaviour online and offline allows new means of control, not only about our shopping behaviour through targeted ads. This does of course not only apply to the large technology companies, but it has become the dominant business model for all tech startups. And even with GDPR in place and a few lawsuits here and there it still seems largely uncontested. None of this is new, and all prior criticism at least since Snowden pointed in this direction, but 2019, it seems, is where the totality just hit home: this is not just the questionable practices of a few technology companies. This is the dominant system, and impacts more and more aspects of our life.
IoT plays a crucial role here, as connected devices that help to monitor and control in more domains than a screen can reach, the software that devices run on, the networks and protocols between them, the algorithms that they feed or that control them. Surveillance Capitalism does not only happen when we are in front of our screens, but it is steadily entering more and more domains of the physical world, for example in algorithm-driven gig work such as delivering food on a bicycle. As designers, developers, consultants, conference organisers or whatever role we take on in this field, we are all implied. If we work “in the industry”, pressure to operate within surveillance capitalism is the reality of the companies that hire us. And for research the reality is only marginally different, as some of this pressure extend to funding calls for research proposals. So what is the responsible thing to do now, what is the responsible IoT?
With this years Riot Report we want to devote ourselves to this. We want to investigate the margins and cracks of this seemingly ubiquitous and inescapable system, and see where we can start to do things differently. We want to go beyond calls for new ideas, futures and imaginaries, but see where they become real, today. We want to consider even the smallest hack or reconfiguration, a product or service that manages to do things differently, the idea that seemed too romantic, radical or impossible ten or five years ago, the places far away where surveillance capitalism is reaching only slowly, or the idealists that move away from the net to start anew somewhere else. We welcome articles that point to and explore the loose ends of surveillance capitalism, and help us imagine something different, to figure out: in which direction is “towards a responsible IoT”?
The full report will be published in early December 2019, coinciding with ThingsCon 2019. Articles should be 2-5-pages (1k – 2.5k words). Deadline for articles is November 1st, 2019. If you would seriously like to submit something but this deadline provides an issue please let us know. We might be able to be flexible, but need to hear from you.
For any questions please don’t hesitate to send us an email.