Cory Doctorow describes what's wrong about "Surveillance Capitalism"

Cory Doctorow's new short book, How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, was just published in its entirety on OneZero. Below is Cory's Twitter thread that summarizes his argument that the problem with surveillance capitalism isn't that it big tech has AI-enhanced power to brainwash people, the problem is that big tech uses its monopoly power in ways that lead to totalitarian control over our lives.

You've probably heard Zuboff's excellent coinage "Surveillance Capitalism" and perhaps you've read the paper it was introduced in, or the book that it led to.

Today, I've published a response to that book, "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism."I wrote "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism" after reading Zuboff's book and realizing that while I shared her alarm about how Big Tech was exercising undue influence over us, I completely disagreed with her thesis about the source of that influence and what should be done about it.

Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism a "rogue capitalism," a system that has used machine learning to effectively control our minds and shape our behavior so that we can no longer serve as market actors whose purchase decisions promote good firms and products over bad ones.

Because of that, Big Tech has a permanent advantage, one that can't be addressed through traditional means like breakups or consent decrees, nor can it be analyzed through traditional privacy lenses.
But I think that's wrong. It's giving Big Tech far too much credit. I just don't buy the thesis that Big Tech used Big Data to create a mind-control ray to sell us fidget spinners, and that Cambridge Analytica hijacked it to make us all racists.

So I wrote "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism," a short book that delivers a different thesis: Big Tech is a monopoly problem. In fact, it's just a part of a wider monopoly problem that afflicts every sector of our global economy.

Accidentally and deliberately, monopolies create all kinds of malignant outcomes. If the company that has a monopoly on search starts serving wrong answers, people will believe them – not because of mind control, but because of dominance.

But monopolies have an even graver failure-mode: when a large, profitable industry collapses down to 4 or 5 companies, it's easy for those companies to agree on what they think policy should be.

And being monopolists, they have lots of spare cash to convert that agreement to actual policy. What's more, once an industry is monopolized, everyone qualified to understand and regulate it probably came from one of the dominant companies.

Think of how the "good" Obama FCC chairman was a former Comcast exec and the "bad" Trump FCC chair is a former Verizon lawyer.

There's a name for regulatory outcomes driven by collusion among monopolists whose regulators come from their own ranks.

We call them: "Conspiracies."

When social scientists investigate conspiracists, they find people whose beliefs are the result of real trauma (like losing a loved one to opioids) and real conspiracies (the Sackler family and other Big Pharma barons suborning their regulators).

The combination of real trauma and real conspiracies gives ALL conspiracies explanatory power. This is brilliantly documented in @annamerlan's "Republic of Lies," one of the most important books on the rise of conspiratorial thinking I've read.

Surveillance Capitalism is a real, serious, urgent problem, but not because it accidentally led to a working mind-control ray and then turned it over to Nazis.

It's a problem because it is both emblematic of monopolies (which lead to corruption, AKA conspiracies) and because the vast, nonconsensual dossiers it compiles on us can be used to compromise and neutralize opposition to the status quo.

And Big Tech DOES exert control over us, but not with mind-control rays. Lock-in (and laws that support it) allows Big Tech to decide how we can use our devices, who can fix them, and when they must be thrown away.

Lock-in is an invitation to totalitarianism: the Chinese government observed the fact that Apple alone could decide which apps can run on Iphones, then ordered Apple to remove apps that allowed Chinese people privacy from the state.

I'm sure that the Uyghurs in concentration camps and the Falun Gong members having their organs harvested are relieved that Apple abetted their surveillance for reasons other than mere marketing.

This is the core of my critique, the reason I wrote this book: we should be suspicious of all corporate control over our lives, and should insist on nothing less than absolute technological self-determination.

The idea that "if you're not paying for the product, you're the product," suggests the simplistic solution of just charging for everything. But the reality is that in a monopoly, you're the product irrespective of whether you're paying.

We deserve to be more than products.

I am so grateful to @ozm for the incredible look-and-feel of my new book. It's a free read on their site, with a really fantastic new nav system that will help you pick up where you left off.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the spectacular artwork that @shira_no_filter did for the book, and the tireless efforts of my editor, @bcmerchant, who championed it internally and is ultimately responsible for the brilliant package you see before you.

I'm also excited to note that this will be shortly coming out as a print book, doubtless just as beautiful as this digital edition.

I know it's a longread, but I hope you'll give it a try.

Big Tech NEEDS a corrective, and that corrective – antimonopoly enforcement – is part of a global movement that addresses deep, systemic problems in every sector. This is a moment for us to seize, but we have to understand where the problem really lies.