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Requerimiento, viruses, vaccines and revolutions: Fresh takes on surveillance capitalism

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

I'm re-reading Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism - the first book selected by the Women in AI Ethics bookclub for 2021. It's been just over a year since I first read it and the content is hitting me in new ways. There is SO much to unpack and I'm only halfway through but I thought I'd share three things that are resonating with me.

Are terms of service contracts a form of Requerimiento?

In the 1500s, before invading and killing everyone in a community, Spanish conquerors would recite an edict known as the Requerimiento. It was like a verbal validation giving them the right to kill, to conquer, to rule, to take what they wanted and to legitimize their attack. It was kind of like saying, hey, you've been warned - so back down now and don't resist us because we've got the authority of God on our side - and if you fight back, then whatever happens to you will be your own fault. (Zuboff, p 177) The conquerors would whisper these warnings under cover of darkness, fulfilling their ethical and moral duties, checking the box of their duty to inform.

Terms of service agreements, those long, complicated, difficult to understand "click wrap" are, Zuboff contends, a modern form of Requerimineto. Essentially, we've been warned. We've been told our data will taken and used in whatever ways our digital conquerors see fit. There is nothing we can do about it. The duty to inform has been completed.

"Every vaccine begins in careful knowledge of the enemy disease." - Shoshana Zuboff (p14)

"Almost nothing short of a biological virus can scale as quickly, efficiently or aggressively as these technology platforms and this makes the people who build, control and use them powerful too." - Eric Schmidt, Former CEO, Google (Zuboff, p 179)

Analogies of viruses and vaccines are, I imagine, hitting all of us in new ways. We now understand just what it means for a biological virus to scale. To compare your business to a virus, as Schmidt does, gives us a sense of the all encompassing power that he feels is made possible by these technology platforms. Zuboff, on the other hand, is writing a description and prescription in the 500+pages that follow her vaccine analogy. She is helping diagnose the disease so that we may stand a chance at inoculation. This "virus talk" feels eerily on point as we sit isolated in our homes, relying on the very surveillance technologies that seeks to render our behaviour into data for commercial purposes, as the one thing we have left that connects us to each other.

"...transparency and privacy represent friction for surveillance capitalists in much the same way that improving working conditions, rejecting child labor or shortening the working day represented friction for early industrial capitalists." (Zuboff, p 248)

It's hard to imagine the early days of the industrial revolution. I think about the work of Charles Dicken's and his chronicles of child labour, unsafe working conditions, pollution and the resulting social chaos. These conditions were allowed to happen with no regulatory constraints in place to curtail them. We're in a similar moment. The economic model of surveillance capitalism that demands we turn behaviour into data, rendering it for prediction is spreading beyond the digital sphere. It's coming for our homes through smart lightbulbs, toothbrushes, home security cameras..."even the babies nursery is reconceived as a source of fresh behavioural surplus." (Zuboff, p 238) Our bodies - our biometric data - it's all up for grabs. For people living in Dickensian England, it must have felt unstoppable, inevitable, helpless and hopeless - all of the same feelings we have about surveillance capitalism.

We eventually found a way out of the darkness imposed by the Industrial revolution but it didn't happen overnight. Even with regulation it took a long time for things to change. It took the will of people - writers like Dickens who chronicled and critiqued what was happening - as well as unionized labour, protests and revolution. It took people working together to demand change and a right to shape their future. Zuboff promises to cover perspectives on a path forward in the second half of her book. I'll keep you posted!

By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI _______

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Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at © 2021 Ethically Aligned AI Inc. All right reserved.


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