Surveillance capitalism and the information state

Surveillance capitalism and the information state

Shoshana Zuboff’s excellent book pinpoints foundational features of the contemporary form of capitalism, based on digital exhaust produced by software apps and which software companies sell on as their real products. This provides an enormous amount of personalised information about users seemingly as a by-product, but which actually is the real product that generates profit. Like getting recommendations for books you might be interested in when on Amazon? Like the insurance quotes tailored for you? Their origins lie in this digital exhaust.  Zuboff’s particular focus is Google, and also Microsoft and Facebook (Apple comes off relatively well). She also points out that the organisational structures of these companies are such that shareholders are disempowered and effective power remains with an oligarchical and self-perpetuating group at their centre.

Capitalism and the ‘modern’ state (which can be dated in Britain from the Tudor monarchs and around the mid 16th century) have always been concerned with information, as an equally excellent book some years ago by the historian Edward Higgs pointed out. And for Weber, record-keeping based on the collection of information gave rise to an administrative and bureaucratic class and the bureaucratic apparatus that originated and perpetrated theIr central organisational role in capitalism. These things come together, of course, because increasingly the state itself makes use of such digital information with an enormous upsurge in this as a result of such things as 9/11 and the London bombings, and also because of more routine extensions of state activities.

So has this changed the interlinking of classification and regulation that is at the heart of the racialising process in the South African context? Perhaps not, for as discussed in some earlier WWW blogs, the South African government has discussed proposals for extending the systematic collection of information based on racial categorisation, gender and age as the basis of all its service-delivery and potentially to sell this on to corporate customers. So far this has not been developed, probably largely because of inefficiency rather than any awareness of the dangers in this regarding the relationship of citizen to the state and to outside organisations and institutions. However, the solidification of ideas about race as inhering in visible and measurable characteristics that can be logged and used for other purposes continues. This has a cleft stick aspect, for such information is necessary for the redistribution of resources, but at the same time it helps produce the same divisions it seeks to ameliorate and end.

Last updated: 23 January 2020