The most important lesson in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism may be the least discussed
Corporate capture of democratic process is described by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), as a Cycle of Dispossession. Zuboff has been watching the tech sector for decades, and in her book she describes surveillance capitalism as “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” She also calls surveillance capitalism: “an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.”
While there has been much discussion of her theories — including good criticism— I’d argue that the most important lesson in her book may be the least discussed: how tech companies continue to operate with unchecked power. Step one to exerting control over technology is to maintain power over how it’s designed for civic and public purpose. Part of exerting this control is also being able to identify the anti-democratic patterns that have been so common to date.
The Cycle of Dispossession describes an anti-democratic pattern, which Zuboff lays out as a four-stage process: incursion, habituation, adaptation, and redirection. All of which we saw in Toronto during the Sidewalk Labs project.
The incursion stage is when a tech company makes a brash move into a space or business vertical in order to turn it into a digital market. Zuboff draws on Hannah Arendt here — she talks about this stage as simple theft. Her examples describe unilateral incursion into undefended spaces that range from the contents of our emails to our streets and homes to our emotions and attention.
In the case of Toronto, Sidewalk Labs had no business acting as a city government. Full stop. The incursion there was simple and blatant. Worst of all, Waterfront Toronto, on behalf of three levels of government, wrote the public tender that invited a Google sister-company to do the government’s work.
Phase two, habituation, is best understood as the normalization phase. In Toronto, every time there was an issue with Sidewalk’s plans, or some other public pushback, a new wave of corporate communications, crisis management, and influential endorsements would roll through. After years of controversy, Sidewalk Labs had the budget and persistence to keep on going, to put on a happy face and explain how this was all part of any hard project, and to remind us that “most people don’t like change.”
Meanwhile, many people in civil society became tired of trying to follow and understand the project. Over time a sense of resignation set in. When Sidewalk’s plan was finally shared publicly, it was more than 1,500 pages long — a tactic to overwhelm unto itself. Who has the time to read such a thing? Public silence, born of a lack of knowledge and confusion about what the project was even about, was translated, incorrectly, into consent.
Resistance to a project like this is meant to feel futile. In her book, Zuboff illustrates the habituation part of the cycle by using public activism related to Google Street View as an example, and talks about how the cycle “eventually wear[s] down resistance”. Google’s Street View product began operating in 2007, saw a privacy scandal in 2010, and an FCC inquiry in 2012. Throughout all of it, the firm continued on unabated, unstopped, and unchecked. The passage of time, enabled by vast amounts of money, is an important factor in this part of the cycle.
Adaptation, according to Zuboff, is the third phase — when tech firms switch to agreement with public critique and issue a mea culpa of sorts, saying yes, they should have listened more. Sidewalk Toronto was originally billed as being designed from “the internet up.” On October 31, 2019, however, at the peak moment of the adaptation phase, Sidewalk Labs downplayed the tech, saying that it was never really about data and apologized for not being more responsive to public concerns about the issue.
This adaptation moment in late 2019 was incorrectly heralded as a big win by Toronto, as though the city had “reigned in big tech”. This seems to be the public relations story that both the governments and the company wanted to tell, a nice way to try and wrap it up quietly. But major governance problems with the original deal still loomed large. Negotiations were taking place outside of a democratic policy framework, mostly behind closed doors.
Moreover, the policy issues were being driven underground into future legal contracts called “Implementation Agreements” between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs. These agreements represented the next wave of obscure private legalese to govern the project, documents that would have been drafted after the public consultation phase, and at a level of complexity that would have made them next to impossible to follow/scrutinize as a member of the public. These “Implementation Agreements” sought to punt the governance problems down the road without solving them while evading public oversight. But in the cycle, it’s only the appearance of adaptation to public demands that matters.
In Toronto, the final phase of the dispossession cycle, redirection, involved narrowing public discussion to focus on hundreds of details so that the overall construct and history of the deal wasn’t on the table for debate or input. Public attention was redirected away from the core issues: a lack of proper digital governance policies and a botched public tender. Despite these issues, at this point, there was no mechanism for the public to say no to the deal. We could only offer small adjustments on how it would happen. It was textbook regulatory capture.
At the final public meeting, the last one before a key vote on the project, the public was supposed to wade through more than 100 individual “innovations” — directing public attention away from what mattered (lack of public policy to govern the deal, or how to evaluate its long-term consequences) and into arcane minutiae.
Moreover, at the meeting, residents were standing up and talking about Sidewalk Labs as though it was an ordinary real estate developer, illustrating how little some of the public understood about the project. When I expressed my concern to one man at my table about how the motivation of private capital is different than that of government capital in defining how we live together, he replied that he doesn’t believe that all companies are evil, or that Google is evil. Twice I said to him “that’s not what I said,” but I don’t think he heard me. In our current moment, simply pointing out the difference between government motive and private capital’s motive is understood as bashing big tech.
Taken together, the Cycle of Dispossession was an endless parade of tactics, gimmicks, and rhetoric used to steamroll the public. An overwhelming force focused on manufacturing public consent in partnership with our governments. There is no reason to believe that governments will stop taking part in these kinds of projects in the name of economic development. It’s also why it’s more urgent than ever to set the rules outside of public tenders, not through them, to define how public technologies work.
(ps: wrote this in May this year but never put it anywhere — have posted it now as this pattern feels helpful to keep in mind for the future(s))
(pps: thinking that more advocacy and engagement should be happening at the incursion phase)