Forget Surveillance Capitalism – It’s Time to Build a Digital Commons

by Mathew Lawrence

30 September 2018


Vladimir Lenin once predicted a time where ‘all of society will become a factory.’ That future has arrived. Surveillance capitalism is resculpting our world for the smooth and voracious accumulation and monetisation of data. Our relationships and networks, our physical and silicon infrastructures, our attention, all are being repurposed to enable digital extractivism at scale. We all live in the factory now.

Driving this transformation are the platform monopolies that occupy the commanding heights of the contemporary economy. Their enclosure of the information commons and control of the underlying digital infrastructure is a modern form of accumulation by dispossession, generating immense economic power and reward for a few.

Apple recently became the first trillion dollar valued company in history. Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos has seen his net worth rise by $405m a day in 2018, joined it last month. The ‘Big 5’ – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft – have a market capitalisation more than the 100 biggest British companies combined, and a total revenue larger than the GDP of 90% of countries globally.

The dominant tech companies have accumulated the most data, developed the most advanced analytical capabilities and gained greatest ownership of the foundational infrastructure, from mapping to cloud computing, that underpins all digital technology. Their goal is expansive and universal: to extract, analyse and monetise ever-more data and command ever-more of the digital infrastructure that underpins digital life. Each platform seeks to build a digital world onto itself, a totality that users never have to leave. Yet we should beware Californians bearing gifts.

Unchecked, they risk creating a ‘paradox of plenty’, in which digital technologies produce more, yet the fruits are less equally shared, as the benefits of technological change flow to a narrow class of owners and workers. Economic concentration, as embodied by the monopoly power of the tech giants, is also linked to low investment despite rising corporate profits, declining business dynamism, weak productivity, and a falling share of income paid to workers.

Surveillance capitalism is not just reordering our economy; it is also transforming regimes of control. The marriage of geolocational technologies that track and trace everyday life with the neoliberal drive to economise all of society has led to an explosion in capitalist power that threatens democratic norms, imperils autonomy, and collapses distinct and important forms of measurement into life ruled by the ‘like’.

The dual quality of surveillance capitalism – that it at once expands our ability to connect and explore but also more deeply contracts freedom – is mirrored in neoliberalism. On the one hand, we are offered a world of consumer choice and seemingly boundless interactions. On the other, we are ensnared by debt that forecloses the future, autonomy and dignity is undercut by technologies that reshape work and culture, and inequality veers towards the oligarchic. And in communities, workplaces and households across the country, people lack meaningful control as institutions and cultures of democratic power have been hollowed out.

How then can we tame the vast infrastructural power of the digital platforms, democratise technology and move beyond neoliberalism? Critically, the challenge is one of politics and the terrain we define as the political. After all, many of the technologies underpinning current forms of neoliberal control and digital extractivism can enable new modes of co-operation and democratic power if we have the ambition and strategy to transform their use. This though requires a politics that emphasises the need for granularity and friction, not endless smooth accumulation, that stresses the importance of publicness and public things, and is sceptical about the emancipatory claims of technology while working towards a world where such rhetoric can find actualisation in meaningful and democratic forms.

Concretely, it means recognising that data and the value generated from it is a collective achievement, whose value is primarily in its collective scale. The same is true for the digital infrastructures. Public policy should therefore seek to shape the production and distribution of data and its use for the common good. At the heart of that should be a unifying goal: to move from conditions of monopolistic digital enclosure to a thriving, creative and pluralistic digital commons, where data and technological infrastructure is organised as a common resource.

IPPR’s new report, ‘The digital commonwealth: from private enclosure to collective benefit’, sets out how this can be done. From the development of a public digital infrastructure to the scaling of databanks that can socialise the value of data, from requiring the platform giants to open up their siloed datasets and changing what data they can collect to encouraging local experimentation to roll back the neoliberal ‘smart city’ and reclaim digital sovereignty, we can begin to build a very different digital future. Fundamental to this though must be a politics capable of and committed to developing new forms of democratic power, of our data and technologies, of our economy, and of ourselves.


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