Capitalism has emerged as one of the widely used economic systems around the world with the fall of communism in the early 1990s. However, with the technological revolution of the 21st century, capitalism has evolved and mutated into different variants. One such version of this economic system is surveillance capitalism – a term coined and popularized by Harvard Professor, Shoshana Zuboff. The underlying argument behind this new terminology is that technology companies are seeking to automate human beings through the massive data collected when people use free platforms, such as Google and Facebook. The purpose of this paper is to explain what Zuboff means by surveillance capitalism, and how this concept could be used to understand problems like information pollution and hiring bias.
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Zuboff does not give a denotative definition of the term ‘surveillance capitalism, hence, the meaning can only be derived from what she writes in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is a new economic order whereby big technology companies, normally without users’ knowledge, collect human experiences and use them as raw materials to predict and alter future behaviors. In other words, tech companies collect huge troves of users’ data based on their human experiences and turn them into behavioral data, which is then fed into advanced machine intelligence technologies for processing. Such data are manipulated into prediction products that anticipate what users will likely do or behave in the future.
These products are then traded in an emerging marketplace called behavioral futures markets. This information can be sold to any interested party, and as Zuboff claims, “Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior”. This form of data manipulation is tantamount to automating human beings by accurately predicting their future behaviors and creating products to meet needs that do not exist presently. According to Zuboff (2019), surveillance capitalists focus on collecting data related to human emotions, personalities, and voices, which are then used to tune, coax, nudge, and herd behavior toward a profitable outcome. While capitalism initially focused on creating a culture of consumerism, this new variant is manipulating people to behave in a certain manner, which creates a market need, then producing goods and services to meet the so established demand.
The concept of surveillance capitalism could be used to understand problems, such as information pollution and hiring bias. According to Braun, information pollution turns “trusted news organizations into data brokers that produce less civically valuable content, dramatically incentivizing the creation of clickbait and outright disinformation” (par. 14). In other words, news organizations are compelled to focus on revenue streams that promise huge returns, which, in this case, involve airing carefully tailored information to reach the target market with precision. This trend can be explained using Zuboff’s concept of surveillance capitalism whereby companies focus on future behaviors. Capitalistic institutions are rarely concerned about the past or present because chances are that they have already derived maximum utility and profitability from such periods. Therefore, the future offers a promising prospect to profit from due to the untapped potential. News organizations are caught up in this web, thus they resort to information pollution because the only way to remain profitable in a quickly changing market environment is by peddling tailored information based on data derived from surveillance capitalism practices.
Similarly, surveillance capitalism promotes hiring bias. According to Bogen, “To attract applicants, many employers use algorithmic ad platforms and job boards to reach the most relevant job seekers”. However, the said algorithmic platforms are subject to data collected through surveillance capitalism. Therefore, such platforms are likely to promote bias because they have been designed using predictive technologies that largely employ surveillance capitalism techniques. For example, the platforms will be designed to deliver hiring ads to people who are likely to click on the ads as a way of using the recruitment budget effectively. However, such an approach is likely to reinforce gender and racial stereotypes during the recruitment process, which explains the hiring bias problem.
I agree with Zuboff’s arguments because they make sense and she backs her theory with existing literature and primary evidence from companies, such as Google and Facebook. Additionally, from a marketing perspective, it makes sense to focus on the future behaviors of the potential clients and create products that will meet their needs at the appropriate time. As such, Zuboff’s theory on surveillance capitalism fits well into the dynamics of business management especially at a time when the competition has become stiff with the entry of globalization. In conclusion, the concept of surveillance capitalism is new, but it will probably be the mainstay of decision-making in business moving forward. Data has become the new commodity of trade, but it creates problems such as information pollution and hiring bias as explained earlier in this paper.
Bogen, Miranda. “All the Ways Hiring Algorithms Can Introduce Bias.” Harvard Business Review, Web.
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Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Hachette Book Group, 2019.