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The rise of surveillance capitalism

Over the past few years many Western countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have seen the rise of a chilling 'soft' totalitarianism: something more “Brave New World” thanNineteen Eighty-Four”. Identity politics are beginning to encroach on every aspect of life. Progressives attempt to marginalise conservatives, traditional Christians and other dissenters, sneering at the idea of civil liberties protecting their beliefs. Corporations now censure opinions with which they disagree. Technology is inching us toward a surveillance state, and consumerism has chilled our spirits to make us willing to accept a secularism imposed not by gulags but by softer means.


Despite the warning signs, many Christians fail to recognise the dangers, and even fewer know what they can do to resist. Meanwhile, the men and women who survived communist oppression have been sounding the alarm. One is the mother of an eminent American physician, a Czechoslovak immigrant who had spent six years of her youth as a political prisoner in her homeland, having been part of the Catholic anti-communist resistance. Now in her nineties and living with her son and his family, she had recently told him that events in the US today reminded her of when communism first came to Czechoslovakia. The US-born doctor said he had heard his immigrant parents warn him about the dangers of totalitarianism all his life, but he wasn't worried. America was the land of liberty, of individual rights, one nation under God and the rule of law. But now there were things happening that made him think: what if they were right?


What makes the emerging situation in the West similar to what they fled? After all, every society has rules and taboos and mechanisms to enforce them. What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this particular similarity: elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism based on defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups – ethnic, sexual etc. – and to think of good and evil as power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice. At the same time, Big Business has moved steadily leftward on social issues. Some multinational companies impose progressive cultural politics on their workplaces in more socially-conservative countries: several Polish employees have felt compelled to participate in LGBT activism inside their companies. As Christians they believed endorsing Pride violated their consciences, but given economic conditions in Poland they feared refusing to conform would cost them their employment.


The politicisation of life in corporations along social justice lines has occurred at the same time that Big Business has embraced amassing personal data as a key sales and marketing strategy. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith must live with a telescreen in his apartment. The two-way device delivers propaganda but also monitors residents, allowing the totalitarian State to invade the privacy of people's homes. Given that generations of American students have read Orwell's novel, one would think they would be inoculated against accepting this kind of invasive technology. However, this is not the case. In the twenty-first century Big Brother has found a much more insidious way into their homes. In fact, he has been invited! Nearly 70 million Americans have one or more wireless 'smart speakers' – usually manufactured by Amazon or Google – in their residences. Smart speakers are voice-recognition devices connected to the internet. They serve as digital assistants, recording vocal commands and, in response, executing actions such as obtaining information, ordering retail goods, controlling lights and music etc. For over 25 percent of the population, convenience has overcome privacy concerns.


Consumerism is how people are learning to love Big Brother. What's more, Big Brother is not exactly who they expect him to be. At the present moment his primary occupation is capitalist: he's a salesman, a broker, a gatherer of raw materials and a manufacturer of desires. He is monitoring virtually every move they make to determine how to sell them more things, and in so doing learning how to direct their behaviour. In this way, Big Brother is laying the foundation for soft totalitarianism, both in terms of creating and implementing the technology for political and social control and by grooming the population to accept it as normal.


This is the world of 'surveillance capitalism' – a new form of capitalism created by Google and perfected by Amazon and Facebook. Surveillance capitalism hoovers up detailed personal data about individuals and analyses it with sophisticated algorithms to predict people's behaviour. The aim, obviously, is to pitch goods and services tailored to individual preferences. No surprise there – that's merely advertising. The deeper realities of surveillance capitalism, however, are far more sinister. The masters of data aren't simply trying to figure out what you like; they are now at work making you like what they want you to like, without their manipulation being detected. And they're doing this without the knowledge or informed permission of the people whose lives they have colonised, and who are at present without the means to escape the surveillance capitalists' web. You may have given up Facebook over privacy concerns and may have vowed never to have a smart device under your roof, but unless you're a hermit living off the grid you're still thoroughly bounded and penetrated by the surveillance capitalist system.


The story of surveillance capitalism began in 2003 when Google, by far the world's largest internet search engine, patented a process to allow it to use the vast amount of data it gathered from individual searches in a new way. In other words, their data scientists had figured out a way to utilise surplus information obtained from searches to predict the kind of advertising that would most appeal to individual users. Before long, 'data extraction' became the basis for a new technology-based economy. Google, Facebook, Amazon and others discovered how to make fortunes by gathering, packaging and selling personal data: web-connected sensors are reporting facts and data about individuals constantly.


Consider this scenario: the alarm on your smartphone buzzes you out of bed in the morning. While you were asleep, the apps on your phone uploaded the previous day's information about your activities on it to the app owner. You crawl out of bed, brush your teeth, put on your shorts and sneakers and take a 20-minute run around your neighbourhood. The Fitbit on your wrist records your workout information and uploads it. Back home, you shower, dress, pour yourself a bowl of cereal and check your Gmail account, Facebook, and your favourite news and information sites. Everything you write on Gmail is processed by Google, which scans the text for key words to direct advertising to you. The company's algorithms are so sophisticated that Facebook can make detailed predictions about you just by associating certain data points. When you scan newspaper websites, cookies embedded in your browser report back about which stories you've read.


As you drive to work, sensors in your car record and report your driving habits because you allowed your car insurance company to capture this data in exchange for a lower rate for safe drivers. Meanwhile, the insurance company's sensors record data about which stores you stop at and then report all that back to the insurance company, which sells that data to marketers.


All day long, the smartphone in your pocket sends data about its location – and therefore yours – back to your service provider. You are traceable at all times! You go out for lunch and pay with your credit or debit card? Marketers know where you've eaten and match that data with your personal profile. Stop at the supermarket on the way home, pick up a few things and pay with the card? They know what you bought. Your smart refrigerator is sending data about your eating habits to someone. Your smart TV is doing the same thing about what you're watching, and could soon be watching you – literally. It doesn't take a George Orwell to understand the danger posed by this all-but-inescapable technology. And if you thought smart refrigerators are a recent invention you're very much mistaken: they're mentioned in Grant Jeffrey's 2010 documentary Shadow Government, available from the church library.


You may not be able to escape the digital prison that is currently being fortified around you by tech companies, but you should certainly be aware of the tactics being employed so that you can take steps to mitigate the information flow and protect your privacy as much as possible.

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