Democracy Can Still End Big Tech’s Dominance Over Our Lives

Just two decades ago barely 25% of the world’s information was digital. The internet is now everywhere. This is our common destiny and privilege to be alive at the dawn information civilization. How will it shape our future? Which legacy will we leave for our children and our fellow citizens, as well as the future generations,?

Our lives in an information society are mediated and made possible by information. However, what about the quality of that information? This information is not available to the public. Who determines who knows this information? Who decides who determines who knows? These questions, along with those of authority and power are fundamental to our current social order.

In the year 2022, across so many of our societies, it is the surveillance capitalist firms, beginning with the giants—Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon—that hold the answers to each of these questions, though we never elected them to govern.

Within a span of two decades surveillance capitalism evolved from baby startups to become a global institution order, intermediating almost all human interactions with digital architectures throughout every aspect of our daily lives. All data related to all people, data scientists and data scientists as well as cables, computers and cloud storage is now owned by the giants and their eco-systems. They are the ones who control artificial intelligence (or machine learning) as the world’s largest market for knowledge production. They make decisions about what knowledge becomes, who it is for, and how they will use it.

This is how it happened.

From the dawn of the world wide web in the mid-1990’s, the liberal democracies failed to construct a coherent political vision of a digital century that advances democratic values, principles, and governance. The failure of the liberal democracies left an empty space where democracy ought to be.

America was the most affected by this void. There, an ideology of radical market liberty persuaded legislators to cede new information and communications spaces to private ownership, diminishing democracy and power.

America’s fledgling internet startups quickly filled the void with the novel digital-age economics of surveillance capitalism, based on the secret capture and datafication of human experience. Such taking without asking is normally called “theft,” and it was on the strength of this theft that human data were aggregated on an industrial scale and claimed as corporate property available for new methods of computation, behavioral prediction, and sales. It was the click through rate, which revolutionized internet advertising with surveillance-based targeting. Surveillance capitalism now regulates all aspects of economic activity. This includes healthcare, education, retail, finance and agriculture. Every product called “smart” and every service called “personalized” is part of this regime.

Human data is the prey of the hunters. This means that there must be a lot of bait to keep them coming back for more. The bait was also part of the big taking, including all the web pages, the books, the music, the bodies, cars, shops, homes, classrooms, hospitals, maps of all territories, streets, buildings, houses… and all the news. You can make more money by using more bait.

It is crucial to grasp the consequences of surveillance capitalism on information and how it degrades journalism. This massive machine system is built to deal with information like a large commodity such as tons of wheat or oil barrels. The machines can produce large quantities of information without being able to discern between corruption and integrity. The industrial production of information is revealed in a Facebook leaked document. It describes Facebook’s Artificial intelligence hub as “ingesting trillions of data points each day,” to produce “thousands of models” and “six million behavioral predictions per second.”

The picture is missing meaning, truth, and facts. Why? According to surveillance capitalism logic, revenue integrity doesn’t matter. Corrupt information is actually a boon for businesses, since it allows more extract. It is the system demands your engagement, but It’s designed to ignore what you engage with.

The structural blindness of information integrity has created an endless Christmas morning for any autocratic power or political bad actor. They are so empowered that journalists refuse to stand in their path. Machine systems generate revenue by putting corrupt information at the center of social discussion, thereby destroying any vestiges of an independent public square. These conditions are unfeasible for democracy.

From oral witnesses to ancestral practices, through the transition from spoken to printed word trauma, to institutionalization of Fourth Estate, every turn of the history of information and communications established information integrity standards and methods of enforcement. Until now. Instead, news content has been taken from institutions zones of public, professional, and regulatory laws and norms. It is then transferred into the surveillance capitalism area where falsehood and fact are impossible to distinguish.

It is most poignant to see how news agencies have been forced to subordinate to surveillance capitalism for survival.

Pew’s 2011 annual report on “The State of the News Media,” observed, “the future will belong to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user. That knowledge—and the expertise in gathering it—increasingly resides with technology companies outside journalism”

We’ve stumbled into a future that we did not and would not choose. This world is an accidental dystopia. A global zero-sum game, in which the growing order of surveillance capitalism leads to deeper democracy disorder. As a result, the social fabric will become more fragile and the foundation for a larger contest over knowledge politics in the new civilization. We took democracy and its institutions as a given, but we were too complacent. We were not aware of the risks and fragility. We didn’t fight. We let ourselves be bystanders in our own destiny.

This tide is now turning. Today I am more optimistic than I have ever been that the democratic order and journalism’s renewed centrality to that order will win this contest. Now, all roads lead to politics: collective action as well as lawmaking. The last three years have been marked by a growing democratic resurgence—a largely unheralded sea change on these frontiers.

In America, Europe, and nearly every world region there has been a wholesale rupture of the public’s faith in the tech companies and the future they would impose. The tech workers are now speaking out and breaking ranks. With a steady rise in legislative initiatives even though the United States was once reluctant, lawmakers are now on the move. The EU added fuel to the mix last week with the strong political agreement regarding the Digital Services Act. This legislation represents a bold reckoning with history––the first comprehensive declaration of a democratic digital future founded on the legitimate authority of democratic rights and rule of law. The DSA breaks the sound barrier of surveillance capitalism’s aura of inevitability and invincibility. It asserts that the digital must live in democracy’s house. The digital century may bring new hope, as the principles and governance of an autonomous democracy are being preserved for the first times in 20 years.

The third decade is a critical turning point. It’s the time when we start to do more than just regulate, but reinvention. The most fundamental question of how we can reinvent connected information domains to advance democratic society’s aspirations is what we must address. It will take new rights charters, new legal frameworks, and the supervision of new institutions that are specifically designed for this time.

These next years are going to be difficult and will require determination, unflinching muscles and strong resolve. Surveillance capitalism, though a new challenger to the system, has many unique strengths which have quickly been transformed into stable means of dominance.

However, corporations don’t hold all of the cards. The internet’s young pioneers are more of a sham than heroes. They have become more like old, aging emperors who were once heros.

While democracy is the slow and old incumbent, there are many advantages that make it a formidable opponent. They include the power to incite democratic action and to create fear among adversaries. And most importantly, they have the legitimate authority and the requisite power, to make, enforce, and enforce democratic law based on beloved values, ideals and principles. This teaches us to stand together and undo what has been done.

As her opening remarks for the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Global Conference in May 2022, Professor Zuboff read an adaptation of this essay.

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