From Fordism to Googlism

From “The Watchers,” an article by Jonathan Shaw in the new issue of Harvard Magazine:

[Shoshana] Zuboff says that corporate use of personal data has set society on a path to a new form of capitalism that departs from earlier norms of market democracy. She draws an analogy from the perfection of the assembly line: Ford engineers’ discovery a century ago, after years of trial and error, that they had created “a logic of high-volume, low-unit cost, which really had never existed before with all the pieces aligned.” Today, many corporations follow a similar trajectory by packaging personal data and behavioral information and selling it to advertisers: what she calls “surveillance capitalism.”

“Google was ground zero,” Zuboff begins. At first, information was used to benefit end users, to improve searches, just as Apple and Amazon use their customers’ data largely to customize those individuals’ online experiences. Google’s founders once said they weren’t interested in advertising. But Google “didn’t have a product to sell,” she explains, and as the 2001 bubble fell into crisis, the company was under pressure to transform investment into earnings. “They didn’t start by saying, ‘Well, we can make a lot of money assaulting privacy,’” she continues. Instead, “trial and error and experimentation and adapting their capabilities in new directions” led them to sell ads based on personal information about users. Like the tinkerers at Ford, Google engineers discovered “a way of using their capabilities in the context of search to do something utterly different from anything they had imagined when they started out.” Instead of using the personal data to benefit the sources of that information, they commodified it, using what they knew about people to match them with paying advertisers. As the advertising money flowed into Google, it became a “powerful feedback loop of almost instantaneous success in these new markets.”

“Those feedback loops become drivers themselves,” Zuboff explains. “This is how the logic of accumulation develops … and ultimately flourishes and becomes institutionalized. That it has costs, and that the costs fall on society, on individuals, on the values and principles of the liberal order for which human beings have struggled and sacrificed much over millennia—that,” she says pointedly, “is off the balance sheet.”

Privacy values in this context become externalities, like pollution or climate change, “for which surveillance capitalists are not accountable.” In fact, Zuboff believes, “Principles of individual self-determination are impediments to this economic juggernaut; they have to be vanquished. They are friction.” The resulting battles will be political. They will be fought in legislatures and in the courts, she says. Meanwhile, surveillance capitalists have learned to use all necessary means to defend their claims, she says: “through rhetoric, persuasion, threat, seduction, deceit, fraud, and outright theft. They will fight in whatever way they must for this economic machine to keep growing. … This is an economic logic that must delete privacy in order to be successful.”