Exploring Modernity & the Networked World – Inspired by ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ by Shoshana Zuboff

Introduction

This blog is inspired by Shoshana Zuboff’s brilliant book titled ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power’. I have just begun reading the fourth chapter, and I firmly believe that it is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the new age economy and the complexities of networked world.

To put it simply, if you use Google and Facebook, and have done on-line shopping in the past, you must buy this tome and read it with love.

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In this blog, I intend to question some of the myths that direct our conscious decision making, our stated norms and values, and our view of the world. Zuboff’s work has been a great resource in busting some of these myths that we subscribe to, at the risk of discovering our own vulnerability and fragility.

There may be some references to the EUM framework that may be unclear despite my best efforts, and for those that are unfamiliar with the work of Ashok Malhotra and his take on the inherent complexity of the world inside and outside, do visit www.eumlens.in for more information.

 

Myth 1

The idea of ‘Self-Authoring’, that eventually leads to creative and collaborative interdependence, in the Networked World

In the last hundred years, across the globe, there has been a key shift in how men and women have emerged out of the confines of class, family, region, legacies and tradition and their influence of identity politics, and have sought to define for themselves how they would choose to live and work.

Termed as first wave of modernity by Zuboff, this process has witnessed an upheaval of sorts for many of us across the globe. It has meant shrugging off the inherent shackles of agrarian-feudal structures and its cloak of belonging at the same time, it has meant questioning legacies and tradition and feeling inept and lost at the same time, and it has meant re-defining identity from ‘individualism’ and casting off social identities at the same time.

In many ways, modernity has meant questioning many of the hierarchies of the old-world including religion, occupation, and ethnicity – but it has also dismantled old affiliative structures, and systems of Affect as well… perhaps leaving us more uprooted, uncertain, anxious and afraid.

Individualization or Agency as celebrated by neo-liberal capitalism, and endorsed by a series of Nobel laureates from Friedman to Markowitz to Modigiliani to Kahneman and Fama et al, has also meant creating the ‘brave new world’ of independent, discerning and maximizing utility as consumers, who can thrive in this atomized world.

In the EUM framework and on the basis of our data of Indian managers, this trend has emerged in the form of a negative correlation between the need for belonging and protection (the UBP / the Clan strand) and individual purpose and aspirations (the UPA/ the Network strand).

An accompanying myth of liberal capitalism that has gotten resurrected as the truth is – that each of us is an agent, and can be an author of one’s own destiny – each of us can choose to create one’s own journey.

This powerful notion of ‘authoring’ is challenged by Zuboff, through her research findings, where she speaks of a new wave of capitalism that follows the first wave as embodied by Henry Ford. In this new wave of capitalism, titled as ‘surveillance capitalism’, Zuboff questions the fantasy of agency in the digital age – and offers overwhelming evidence of consumers being manipulated.

She uses a term known as ‘behavioral surplus’ – patterns of consumer behavior that firms such as Google and Facebook map through complex and expensive AI, and then productize as predictive solutions, and then sold for premium to firms that anticipate our buying behaviors to near perfection, and then manipulate us to consume.

In Surveillance capitalism, Zuboff stresses that we (as users of Facebook and googles) are not the customers – we are blind to how algorithms invade into our private worlds, detect and create behavior routines, and then use these to peddle ‘stuff’. We are, unlike the worker in a Ford automobile plant, not even authorized to charge rent or demand a salary – we are truly undeserving of any dignity in this new age.

This notion of self-authoring gets challenged … it also means that the chimera of the networked economies is up for questioning too.

 

Myth 2

Modernity provides the grand escape from the Tyranny of Slavery

 

Noam Chomsky speaks of the tyranny that enslaves the employee today in the modern corporation. Zuboff reinforces this notion through a creative lens of the simultaneity of self-authoring and individualization and the resurgence of oligarchy in the western world (and of course in India)

While on one hand, an average Indian middle class has celebrated globalization through consumption of goods and services, that the earlier generation may have only dreamt of. There are loyalists to capitalism that burgeon in management schools and in new age firms. But like the USA and the UK, there is a steady decline of infrastructure and government support – social institutions and public sector firms are being siphoned off and sold off. The ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor is a phenomenon that many of us choose to avoid looking at. Oligarchy cannot be denied.

However, on the other hand, each individual in the corporate sector is experiencing aloneness, isolation, and tremendous personal angst – these get reinforced in light of new age technology including AI threatening to take away middle management jobs. Very many firms are questioning their need for the middle manager given the rise of platform models and aggregators.

Those striving to remain competent and relevant and those that are unable to compete – both these sets of people introject tremendous anxiety, risk, and even violence to themselves. Except that the modern organization is never seen as or compared to that of the sugarcane plantation or the colonized factory – the modern organization is increasingly imbued with excellence and innovation, and with no burdens of offering safety or belonging.

Tyranny has taken a new shape where the oppressor and the subject of oppression is united as one – the new age professional employee – it is as Zuboff puts it – sanitized and silent.

Just like the hidden manipulation of consumption, so is the tyranny of the producer also invisible – and it is this prison that many of us live in – with no real sense of ‘home’ or ‘belonging’.

Thomas Picketty stated that “Capitalism should not be eaten raw” – stating that capitalism can be threatening to democratic societies, and would lead to ‘neofeudalism’ – a return to patrimonial capitalism – where power lies in the hand of the elite and beyond our control. Ironic that neofedualism feeds on educated professionals, as opposed to earlier versions of feudalism feeding on the illiterate peasants and serfs.

 

Conclusion

It is very likely that most denizens of the globe would identify with what is happening to each of us – as the ordinary producer and the consumer. With Climate change and environmental degradation impacting each of us today, there is a need to collectively fight for a new future.

It is perhaps easy to get cynical, or to feel weary and impotent today – but I have always felt that human evolution has never been painless.

One of the first steps would be to salvage the sense of belonging for each of us – a world that offers a sense of home to us (UBP)

The other step is to join hands in exploring new ways or rules of living together – building a community-based norms and ethics that thwarts greed, manipulation, and opportunism.

At this juncture, I think it becomes important to define ‘well-being’ that would allow for both these steps; a sense of wellness that transcends monetary wellness, and integrates spiritual and environmental wellness.

The EUM LENS

This section of the blog is for the community of EUM practitioners.

There are numerous occasions where one encounters a EUM-I profile that shows high UPA and low UBP scores. One of the conversations that i like to trigger with such profiles is around the notion of ‘home’ and ‘purpose’ – and explore the nature of split. It is almost as if co-holding the two is a taboo or near impossible.

I am noticing this split increasingly in high technology companies – and thus like to examine processes of safety versus self authoring, themes of belonging and renewal vis-a-vis fears of obsolescence.

The two myths referred to in this blog also allow for greater reflexivity in how the triadic roles of the producer, the consumer, and the member of the community are co-held.

In the earlier years, one would also come across profiles of high UBP and high UPA scores – but this is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence for me.

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