That’s the choice. We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.
That’s what Shoshana Zuboff says, in The Coup We Are Not Talking About.
What we have now—and have fallen into, largely unawares—is a surveillance society. We do not have democracies of the kind that the U.S. founders would want us to have. We do not even have the democracies we had, flawed as they all were, prior to our digital age. Specifically, Shoshana says, our lives are now governed by
surveillance empires powered by global architectures of behavioral monitoring, analysis, targeting and prediction that I have called surveillance capitalism. On the strength of their surveillance capabilities and for the sake of their surveillance profits, the new empires engineered a fundamentally anti-democratic epistemic coup marked by unprecedented concentrations of knowledge about us and the unaccountable power that accrues to such knowledge.
In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.
Shoshana is the one who introduced surveillance capitalism into the lexicons of economics, social studies, policy, and other fields. Her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019) is an international bestseller now in 23 languages, and essential reading for everyone involved in this fight.
And she will be with us to talk about this coup, and how to fight it, at the Ostrom Workshop’s Beyond the Web Salon one week from today, at 2pm Eastern Time. It’s free and you can get on at that link.
If you’re already fighting this coup (which we’ve been doing, in our own many different ways, in ProjectVRM), or if your own life is affected in any way by the struggle to break free of creepy systems that trash our privacy and nudge us into warring tribes, this is a can’t-miss event. See you there.