evolving ecological media culture(s)

The information coup


Cross-posted at Immanence.

Shoshana Zuboff’s analysis of “The Coup We Are Not Talking About,” published in today’s Sunday New York Times, is an essential follow-up to her book Surveillance Capitalism, applying that book’s analysis to the situation we are living through.

This other coup is the “epistemic coup” which, she writes, “proceeds in four stages”:

The first is the appropriation of epistemic rights, which lays the foundation for all that follows. Surveillance capitalism originates in the discovery that companies can stake a claim to people’s lives as free raw material for the extraction of behavioral data, which they then declare their private property.

The second stage is marked by a sharp rise in epistemic inequality, defined as the difference between what I can know and what can be known about me. The third stage, which we are living through now, introduces epistemic chaos caused by the profit-driven algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation. Its effects are felt in the real world, where they splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and sometimes instigate violence and death.

In the fourth stage, epistemic dominance is institutionalized, overriding democratic governance with computational governance by private surveillance capital. The machines know, and the systems decide, directed and sustained by the illegitimate authority and anti-democratic power of private surveillance capital. Each stage builds on the last. Epistemic chaos prepares the ground for epistemic dominance by weakening democratic society — all too plain in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

We live in the digital century during the formative years of information civilization. Our time is comparable to the early era of industrialization, when owners had all the power, their property rights privileged above all other considerations. The intolerable truth of our current condition is that America and most other liberal democracies have, so far, ceded the ownership and operation of all things digital to the political economics of private surveillance capital, which now vies with democracy over the fundamental rights and principles that will define our social order in this century.

Her assessment of the situation, and of the connections between disinformation, the political economy of social media, and epistemic crisis, or “epistemic chaos,” is astute and very clear. The solution she proposes, based on “three principles for the third decade” of “information civilization,” gets a little muddy, to my mind.

She argues that breaking up the tech giants is not enough (which I take to mean that it is still needed) and that “downstream solutions” — such as content moderation and the breaking up of “filter bubbles” — are the wrong way to go. We need, instead, to “end the data collection operations of commercial surveillance,” to establish fundamental rights over personal behavioral data, and to “disrupt the financial incentives that reward surveillance economics.”

These are (needless to say?) radical proposals that are likely to elicit derision from the digital capitalist elite, its political backers, and the libertarian leaning right. But this is also a moment when the right and the left (certainly in the U.S. Congress) are both aiming to curtail the power of the digital behemoths, if for somewhat different reasons, and so one hopes these arguments will be heard.

Zuboff mentions some of the legislative proposals already on the table in various places including the E.U., Britain, and the U.S. If this is, as calls it, “the fight for the soul of our information civilization” (and I think it is), then it’s a good time to act on this fight now.

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