A very long speech


On May 12th 1789, William Wilberforce MP, in poor health, with just a handful of hurried notes, stood and spoke for some three and a half hours in Parliament, to launch his campaign for the abolition of the British slave trade. This is one of the most admired and celebrated speeches in political history - humble while authoritative, fact-filled while respectful of the powerful establishment’s resistance to abolition, passionate in its belief while cool in its logic and composure.

Wilberforce was compelled by his own conscience and his deep religious beliefs. He was a committed and active member of the Evangelist movement, a small group of radical Christians. Despite his own personal regret at failing to save the soul of his old friend and (mostly) ally, the prime minister William Pitt, Evangelism counted more than a few of the influential elite among its adherents.

There was, of course, a far greater canvas for the abolitionist imperative. A new and disruptive discourse on human rights, intellectually fed by The Enlightenment and enacted in huge national and international upheavals - the American War of Independence and the French Revolution - had begun to undermine a philosophical, social, political and economic structure that had endured for much of history.

A very long journey

Having wrestled with abandoning an already successful career in politics to follow his religious calling, Wilberforce had come to see abolition as a cause that could not be denied. He had decided, with support from friends on both sides of the spiritual divide, to commit his profile in Parliament, his personal wealth, his influence in society and his rare oratorical skills, to bringing to an end a widely practiced and accepted trade, on which huge fortunes had already been made, and much of Britain’s income had come to depend.

The humanitarian argument against slavery had already been, if not accepted, then at least acknowledged over the previous decade. A movement to boycott products - for example, sugar - that originated in the slave plantations, had found some support among the enlightened. Nevertheless, Wilberforce and his fellow travellers were taking on the powerful commercial interests and lobbying power of an embedded elite of both gentry and merchants. 

Once the anti-abolitionists recognised the need to defend their interests and loyalties against this organised and, by now, widely supported campaign, they rapidly marshalled support, adopting a stubborn strategy of defiant delay. It would, in fact, take almost two decades before just the first stage of the journey that Wilberforce and his fellow travellers began in 1789 would be concluded. 

The road to abolition

Dancing for joy?

In his famous speech that May of 1789, William Wilberforce spoke directly to some of the many arguments against abolition. Perhaps the most absurd, yet chilling, story evoked the widespread happiness, relief and gratitude that slaves, once captured and on board those terrible ships, expressed.

The same Admiral Edwards reported that he “has frequently seen Guineamen arrive in the West Indies and the Negroes usually appeared cheerful and singing - That you are apprized of the Arrival of the Guineamen by the Dancing and Singing of the Negroes on board”; and a Captain Robert Heatley argued “that a Slave on board a Guineaman, in respect of Food and Attention, is as well, perhaps better situated, than many Kings and Princes in their own Country”. Captain Robert Norris maintained that “The Men play and sing, whilst the Boys dance for their Amusement - the Women and Girls divert themselves in the same way”; another witness said that “Nine out of Ten rejoice at falling into our Hands. They seem they are aware they are bought for Labour, and by their Gestures wish to convince the Purchasers that they are fit for it”.

While Wilberforce was careful, at this early and sensitive stage of the campaign, to pick his tactical battles, this was far too good to resist. His oratorical genius - not to mention his command of the detail - is much in evidence in this sharp and ironic rebuttal.

“Mr Norris talks of frankincense, and lime juice. When the surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close that there is not room to tread among them: and when you have it in evidence from Sir George Yonge, that even in a ship which wanted 200 of her complement, the stench was intolerable. The song and the dance, says Mr Norris, are promoted. It had been more fair, perhaps, if he had explained that word promoted. The truth is, that for the sake of exercise, these miserable wretches, loaded with chains, oppressed with disease and wretchedness, are forced to dance by the terror of the lash, and sometimes by the actual use of it. Such, then is the meaning of the word promoted.”

William Hague, William Wilberforce

On 25th March 1807 the Slave Trade Act received royal assent. This, at least for Britain, ended the legal slave trade. It would nevertheless be close to a further three decades before the Slavery Abolition Act of August 1834 - a year after his own death - would pave the way for emancipation.

The power and the money

While the achievements of William Wilberforce and the abolitionists - against the steady and sustained resistance of wealthy and well-connected opposition - are rightly celebrated to this day, some of the details of the backstory are less uplifting. Despite the moral urgency to expunge the terrible stain of a trade that had not only uprooted eleven million Africans and condemned them to a kind of living hell - killing close to one and half million on the voyages alone - this was, in the end, a matter of money and power. 

As part of the Abolition Act, the plantation owners were compensated by the British Government the sum of £20 million pounds. Historian Michael Taylor, in his crucial recent book The Interest, lays out the road to an unholy deal that has resonated far into the present century.

In 1807, Parliament outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire, but for the next quarter of a century, despite heroic and bloody rebellions, more than 700,000 people in the British colonies remained in slavery. And when a renewed abolitionist campaign was mounted, making slave ownership the defining political and moral issue of the day, emancipation was fiercely resisted by the powerful ‘West India Interest’. Supported by nearly every leading figure of the British establishment – including Canning, Peel and Gladstone, The Times and Spectator – the Interest ensured that slavery survived until 1833 and that when abolition came at last, compensation was given not to the enslaved but to the slaveholders. Worth £340 billion in today’s money, this was the largest payout in British history before the banking rescue package of 2008, incurring a national debt that was only repaid in 2015 and entrenching the power of slaveholders and their families to shape modern Britain.

Michael Taylor, Introduction to The Interest

The battle over slavery in the United States would rage on for a further three decades. In an act of extraordinary suppression, one that anticipates the manipulation and obfuscation of today’s openly cynical political technique, all printed matter - newspapers, mail and pamphlets - relating to the matter of abolition was, with the full and public support of the president, illegally suppressed across the entire South for close to 30 years.

In 1835, to appease the South, Postmaster General Amos Kendall blocked the transmission into the slaveholding states of information dealing with the slavery issue. The resulting information embargo had the full approval of President Jackson, and it remained in place until the Civil War. Significantly exacerbating the growing sectional rift between the North and the South, Kendall’s conduct struck many as of questionable legality, and raised howls of protest in the North. “I denounce it,” declared Massachusetts congressman John Quincy Adams seven years after the event, “as a violation of the freedom of the press, as a violation of the sacred character of the post office, and of the rights and liberties of all the free people of the United States.” The embargo remains to this day as one of the most thoroughgoing peacetime assaults on the freedom of the press in US history.

Alfred D. Chandler, James W. Cortada, A Nation Transformed by Information

Abolition was a war fought over power and money. While the outcomes are rightly celebrated, the terms of its resolution cannot be viewed through an overly idealistic or sentimental lens. Victory was cemented finally, not by the British establishment’s welcoming acceptance of ‘the right thing to do’, but by a surrender that delivered no compensation whatsoever for the victims of slavery, while handsomely rewarding its beneficiaries.

British taxpayers, already weary of funding the appalling excesses of the still-defiant and comfortably remunerated banking and financial services sectors since the bailouts of 2008, can thus allow themselves a little credit, for their own unacknowledged financial contribution to what has been almost universally hailed as a triumph of principle over profit.

But there were other dynamics in play. 

We could say, well, nothing like a few hundred billion pounds to change the minds of the powerful interests and individuals that had profited so successfully from the slave trade. But we would be confusing the purely commercial with the social, the ethical and the political. We would also be mistaking the endgame - admittedly not a pretty one - for the arduous and often heroic journey that painstakingly transformed the consciousness of much of the civilised world.

What is interesting, pertinent to many of our current conundrums, and thus the primary concern of this paper, is the interplay - the dance, we could say - between the dominant and established narratives that had allowed slavery and the slave trade to remain morally invisible and commercially acceptable, and the emergent, challenging narratives that came to overwhelm them.

Trading narratives

Up until 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished, and through to emancipation in 1834, the practice had attracted little concern, let alone criticism. In fact, it was rarely thought about in terms other than the brutally practical.

The abolitionists’ challenge was - consciously or otherwise - to surface and challenge the underlying narratives: the shared, largely hidden logic of assumptions that had nourished the slave trade for so long.

The lengthy and frustrating debate that played out over the decades following Wilberforce’s speech of 1789 demanded that, for the first time, multiple hidden narratives be surfaced, then articulated and passionately argued, for and against. The outcome would be a profound and long-standing reshaping of the public discourse, impacting and integrating the philosophical, the ethical, the spiritual, the social, the political and of course, the economical. 

While it still took a stupendous bribe to conclusively prise the plantation owners away from slavery, the British government’s decision to take out that unprecedented loan was a direct consequence of far more than a mere winning over of powerful business interests. The collective mind of the establishment - first unwilling to acknowledge, then reluctant to address, then obliged to dig its heels in hard to hold onto, the abomination of human slavery - had been changed.

This, alongside the bitter and unwholesome struggle for money and power, was about the patient and dedicated unpicking of a robust and highly resistant fabric of interwoven narratives, favouring the supporters of slavery. Perhaps inevitably, circumstantial distractions - among them the long and complicated war with France that followed the upheaval of the revolution in 1789 - contributed substantially to the success of the anti-abolitionists core strategy of delay. Indeed, the fundamental untenability of their position dictated that, from the earliest days of the struggle, abolition was privately admitted to be, and after a while, publicly discussed as, a “when” rather than an “if”.

Nonetheless, that it took eighteen years for abolition to register its first significant direct hit in 1807, gives us a sense of the staying power of the establishment’s belief in its cause.

The full range and number of the arguments invoked against abolition are thoroughly documented and better explored elsewhere. The “happy dancing slaves” stories, despite their sinister mendacity, were rapidly sent on their way, as we have seen. Although it is worth pausing, momentarily, to consider the deeper narratives that would have made such cynical nonsense worthy of consideration at all. 

Early in the campaign, the pro-slavery campaign benefitted from widespread public ignorance of and, sadly, indifference towards the realities of slavery. Wilberforce and his supporters made important initial inroads - especially in polite society - by educating friends, acquaintances and colleagues about the systemic cruelty of the trade. 

We need to remember here that the first battle was to end the trade in slaves. To take on slavery itself before that would have meant almost certain failure. So conditions onboard the ships were a critical focus. A wider appreciation of the shocking inhumanity of conditions on board, quite understandably, garnered immediate support for the cause.

Underpinning the absurd “happy dancing slaves” stories - as well as, more broadly, a lack of concern for the overall well-being of slaves - was the all-too-familiar “otherising” narrative, representing Africans as, for example, less than human, barbarous and incapable of managing themselves. 

So we move from “look how happy they are!” to “you see they’re not really human”. This view - and note by the way how difficult and unpleasant such narratives are when they are deliberately surfaced and discussed - aligns slaves with beasts of burden. 

We can, not without a certain relish, imagine the impact of society’s - and eventually the wider public’s - encounters with the very few freed slaves - perhaps well-dressed and articulate, but undeniably very human beings - to be found in London at the time.

The pro-slavers, inevitably, ran out of road with these and comparable dissimulations. It became obvious that the days of slave trading were numbered. The question was, how large could that number of days be made to be?

We should pause here to register the influence of the aristocracy in holding back abolition. As we have noted, the tide for many cherished British institutions was increasingly turning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And as Wilberforce entered and re-entered the political ring to fight his cause, a deep abhorrence of any symptom of social change - no matter the moral or spiritual contradictions - unsurprisingly enabled his opponents to rely on the House of Lords to repeatedly dismiss the idea of abolition. 

The narrative of class and its unchallengeable privileges - still very much in evidence in Britain today, at the time utterly definitive of the status quo - provided its own form of suffocating resistance.

But the narratives that proved hardest to challenge from the pro-slavery camp - many of whom, increasingly over time, openly acknowledged the moral bind of the business - rested on rather more solid economic ground. While it was understandably hard to rely upon an argument for the financial hardships posed to wealthy plantation owners overseas, the threat to local businesses and workers, notably in and around British slaving ports such as Bristol and Liverpool, was repeatedly and passionately evoked.

The practical possibilities that African slaves could in the future either be freed to become paid employees, or be replaced by European workers, were easily dismissed. Here, for example, is Stephen Fuller, the London-based agent for Jamaica, who gave evidence against abolition on a remarkable fifty-three issues:

“We think it impossible with Europeans: So far as Experience can determine we find that the same Exposure to the Sun, which cheers the African, is mortal to the European; One in Ten of them would die in Three Years.

As to free Negroes: - in Jamaica no Free Negro has ever yet known to hire himself, or be employed in Agriculture upon the Sugar Plantations: The Men are averse to labour the Ground even for themselves; and whenever they do it, it is only to supply their immediate Wants: They have all the Vices of Slaves, and no Planter could controul them.”

William Hague, William Wilberforce

We get, therefore, a sense of not only the surface arguments and associated trade-offs that the abolitionists were up against in the course of their long journey, but also the underlying narratives that these arguments relied on, and the corresponding, typically dark, hidden trade-offs that were, over time, to be uncomfortably excavated and exposed to the light.

Learnings from abolition

The journey to abolition was, beneath the good intentions and sheer determination of William Wilberforce and his supporters, and the defiance, deflections and reluctant - not to mention highly lucrative - eventual surrender of their opponents - a conclusive transformation of the narrative. 

The critical Parliamentary votes, once the see-saw tipped in favour of initially abolition and then emancipation, were in each case landslides.

The moral imperatives for abolition were then - and are even more so today - crystal clear. It was ignited, and certainly for those long eighteen years between 1789 and 1807, sustained by the deeply-held religious convictions of Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelists. And the rise of the discourse on human rights, manifested and magnified through the intellectual shift among the elite of The Enlightenment, and the social and political shifts of the American and French revolutions, provided an ever-rising tide, one that would have lifted any and all such issues higher into the public consciousness.

It’s easy to look back on the many years before those hard won - and very costly - victories over the awful slave trade, and ask, “What on earth were they thinking?” We have all asked ourselves - and indeed too often been asked - when our decisions and actions have gone awry: “What on earth were you thinking?” But when have we ever been able to sit down, either in the heat of the moment, or in later tranquillity, to make a coherent and cogent, prioritised list of the reasons why we’d assumed what we assumed, and done what we’d done?

This is the territory of our underlying narratives. They determine how we frame the world, how we relate what we see to what we feel, and what we should do about it.They are not - and this is one of their distinctive and most important attributes - made up of conscious thoughts.

In fact, they replace thinking, by taking the form of emotional and behavioural short-cuts. Until relatively recently, they were often better than thinking. This “soft code” of our narratives has enabled us to take fast and often surprisingly effective action in emergencies, when to stop and have a think would perhaps be fatal.

Such narratives lie, we could say, in a kind of no man’s land between our animal instincts and our rational mind.

What is most urgent to grasp here is that, while such unconscious or semi-conscious narratives are not made up of logically sequenced patterns of thought, they do contain, buried within their scripts, assumed trade-offs. Summoning these into the light and making them conscious has been, of course, the work of the transactional analyst.

“If I am a good boy and don’t say no to Daddy or Mummy ….

But they have become the source of our worst vulnerability. Why is that?

We are, we could say, forced to dance to the tune of other manipulations of our own shared and individual hidden narratives. Until circumstances, eventually and hopefully not too late, compel us to look deeper. That enquiry, as it turns out, is far less to do with “what we’re thinking”, than it is about “what we’re not thinking”. 

Until we surface the narratives that hide - conveniently, often usefully - under the surface of our awareness, we are navigating across an unfamiliar landscape, using maps and compasses that seem to be ours, but in fact serve the interests of others.

The term “controlling the narrative” is all-too-familiar to observers of political behaviour. What this apparently innocuous phrase actually means, when the PR speak is stripped away, is the manipulation and control of human beings. It’s about messing with people’s wiring.

It’s never been easier to do this than it is today. Russia, China, Trump, Brexit.

While there are thousands, perhaps millions of stories in circulation, there is very little informed discourse. Stories - which we could define here as “narratives loaded with emotion” - are used to plant and activate narratives. When we say that these days politics is all about the media, we don’t mean that the battles are fought on the pages of broadsheets or tabloids. Today’s media is hardwired into us, bypassing debate or even conscious consideration.

We’re talking about today’s media. Which brings us, neatly, to the Surveillance Capitalists.

Human rights in cyberspace

This changes everything

One of the more obvious of the many effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a pronounced shift of both life and work into the online world.

Not just ecommerce - Amazon’s reported revenues, at the height of the crisis, of eleven thousand dollars per second deserve a passing raised eyebrow - but every activity that can possibly be performed in cyberspace is regularly happening there. 

Old habits, it’s turned out, won’t necessarily die hard. While most of us look forward having a degree of digital vs physical choice, whenever the so-called ‘new normal’ emerges from the chaos, it’s likely that - just as we’ve come to enjoy the generally cleaner air, more visible wildlife and slower pace that lockdown has ushered in, and would like to retain those unexpected benefits - when the tide rolls back, more than some of these new preferences will remain.

We’ll be spending a lot more of our lives in cyberspace, a location already familiar, in one shape or another, to many of us. And yet one that has, till now, been more threaded through the routines of our physical lives, than another, optional place to plant our feet and live in.

While this particular future is far from evenly distributed, the COVID-19 effect - and of course, the global explosion of BLM’s righteous rage following the death of George Floyd - renders the message of The Age of Surveillance Capital, a timely and courageous tour de force by Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff, even more poignant and urgent than when it was published in early 2019.

The debate - frustrating to many, irrelevant, at least so far, to the vast majority of the billions who have come to rely on Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon - about the dubious sources and worrying implications of the unimaginable wealth and power accumulated so very rapidly by Messrs Page, Brin, Zuckerberg and Bezos, has raged back and forth across critical subjects such as their systemic abuse of privacy (absolutely yes) and the urgent need for government regulation (yes again).

Ms Zuboff, however, has a bigger agenda and a far more pressing argument. The Age of Surveillance Capital - just like that extraordinary three and half hour speech in Parliament in May 1789 - squares up to something both old and new, familiar yet unfamiliar. 

She reframes the dominance - not just of their chosen markets, but of actual human experience and agency - and the practices of (primarily) Google and Facebook as causing a crisis of human rights that, until recently, just like the slave trade and slavery before Wilberforce, has been hard to see, hard to untangle when we can see it, and, apparently, very hard to care about, even when it’s untangled for us.

The ostensibly benign experiences of the billions of so-called ‘users’ enjoyed by Google, Facebook and Amazon (among a familiar handful of other giant corporations) can’t in any sense be compared to the horrific experiences of those eleven million slaves. That said, the implications for human freedom, laid out implacably, step by carefully-researched step, in Surveillance Capital, are profound and demand our urgent consideration.

Ms Zuboff’s task is to change the public narrative about the surveillance trade, by marching us through a sequence of exquisitely expressed and impeccably evidenced accounts of the hidden trade-offs and the endgames.

Rewiring the modern dance

Over two hundred years on from abolition, the subjects of dancing and coercion reappear to provide perhaps the most chilling moment (one of many, many such moments) in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

“We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance,” an internet of things software developer explains, adding, “We can engineer the context around a particular behavior and force change that way. Context-aware data allows us to tie together your emotions, your cognitive functions, your vital signs, etcetera. We can know if you shouldn’t be driving, and we can just shut your car down. We can tell the fridge, ‘Hey, lock up because he shouldn’t be eating,’ or we tell the TV to shut off and make you get some sleep, or the chair to start shaking because you shouldn’t be sitting so long, or the faucet to turn on because you need to drink more water.”

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capital

Ms Zuboff’s immense and important project exposes an entirely modern problem, arising from the rapid and relentless rise, across only twenty years, of a small number of technology giants. 

William Wilberforce took on the narratives that supported the slave trade - in the face of entrenched resistance from its powerful practitioners and beneficiaries, and sustained apathy from the wider public - by surfacing, one by one, the hidden trade-offs that enabled its continued enormous profits. As we have noted above, while the fighting ranged across a number of fronts, it was by successfully reframing the narrative of slavery as an abuse of human rights - at that time a startlingly modern notion - that he was able to win over an audience that ranged from the hostile to the indifferent.

Ms Zuboff, in both her book and in her subsequent media appearances, fronts up to this century’s ostensibly less horrific, yet comparably urgent, equivalent: the surveillance trade. Her unique challenge, analogous in many ways to that of Wilberforce, is that while human rights are today a more or less familiar touchstone, and hardy, credible campaigners such as Jaron Lanier have already broken the ground, their forensic defence, in the immense and almost entirely unregulated Wild West of cyberspace, has never before been attempted.

As a result, she has to work extra hard to make us understand the full set of hidden trade-offs on which the wealth and power accumulated by the surveillance traders to date, and their continuance into the future, depend. Surveillance Capital is a long and demanding read, and not just due to its sheer length. The depth, breadth and carefully researched and detailed evidence that carry the argument are sometimes overwhelming. And the passion and skilful rhetoric that Ms Zuboff sustains throughout her masterpiece can, it must be admitted, be emotionally wearying for the reader.

Fortunately for those short on time and attention span, Ms Zuboff has summarised her narrative in substantial thought pieces for both The New York Times and the Financial Times.

Here, for example, in an article titled “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” she lays out the headlines of the hidden trade-offs that we buy into as ‘users’ of Google and Facebook.

It’s not surprising that so many of us rushed to follow the bustling White Rabbit down his tunnel into a promised digital Wonderland where, like Alice, we fell prey to delusion. In Wonderland, we celebrated the new digital services as free, but now we see that the surveillance capitalists behind those services regard us as the free commodity. We thought that we search Google, but now we understand that Google searches us. We assumed that we use social media to connect, but we learned that connection is how social media uses us ...

All of these delusions rest on the most treacherous hallucination of them all: the belief that privacy is private. We have imagined that we can choose our degree of privacy with an individual calculation in which a bit of personal information is traded for valued services — a reasonable quid pro quo. For example, when Delta Air Lines piloted a biometric data system at the Atlanta airport, the company reported that of nearly 25,000 customers who traveled there each week, 98 percent opted into the process, noting that “the facial recognition option is saving an average of two seconds for each customer at boarding, or nine minutes when boarding a wide body aircraft.”

In fact the rapid development of facial recognition systems reveals the public consequences of this supposedly private choice. Surveillance capitalists have demanded the right to take our faces wherever they appear — on a city street or a Facebook page. The Financial Times reported that a Microsoft facial recognition training database of 10 million images plucked from the internet without anyone’s knowledge and supposedly limited to academic research was employed by companies like IBM and state agencies that included the United States and Chinese military. Among these were two Chinese suppliers of equipment to officials in Xinjiang, where members of the Uighur community live in open-air prisons under perpetual surveillance by facial recognition systems.

New York Times, January 24th 2020

We should take note of that sharp and rapid Through The Looking Glass flip, from Utopian service innovation to Dystopian obfuscation and manipulation. It provides a dramatic example of dropping below the ostensibly harmless, value-added surface trade-offs whose narratives we accept as unquestioning users, and the extensive, deeply disturbing underlying trade-offs with which we need to come to grips.

On the subject of unquestioning and obfuscation, Zuboff digs into the maze of service agreements that we are required to sign, in order to get access to the full range of services on offer from the surveillance traders. University of London research in 2017 determined that “were one to enter into the Nest ecosystem of connected devices and apps, each with their own burdensome terms of service for third-party data sharing, the purchase of a single Nest thermostat would entail the need to review nearly a thousand so-called ‘contracts’.”.

Later on in the same New York Times article, we are carried persuasively - irresistibly - from the ‘What’ of the surveillance trade … to the mechanics of the ‘How’.

Early on, it was discovered that, unknown to users, even data freely given harbors rich predictive signals, a surplus that is more than what is required for service improvement. It isn’t only what you post online, but whether you use exclamation points or the color saturation of your photos; not just where you walk but the stoop of your shoulders; not just the identity of your face but the emotional states conveyed by your “microexpressions”; not just what you like but the pattern of likes across engagements. Soon this behavioral surplus was secretly hunted and captured, claimed as proprietary data.

The data are conveyed through complex supply chains of devices, tracking and monitoring software, and ecosystems of apps and companies that specialize in niche data flows captured in secret. For example, testing by The Wall Street Journal showed that Facebook receives heart rate data from the Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor, menstrual cycle data from the Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, and data that reveal interest in real estate properties from Realtor.com — all of it without the user’s knowledge.

These data flows empty into surveillance capitalists’ computational factories, called “artificial intelligence,” where they are manufactured into behavioral predictions that are about us, but they are not for us. Instead, they are sold to business customers in a new kind of market that trades exclusively in human futures. Certainty in human affairs is the lifeblood of these markets, where surveillance capitalists compete on the quality of their predictions. This is a new form of trade that birthed some of the richest and most powerful companies in history.

New York Times, January 24th 2020

This is how - indeed it’s perhaps the only reliable way in which - a hitherto unshakeable dominant narrative can be questioned, immense power and influence challenged, and public apathy stirred into protest. It must be dug under, in order to uproot the beliefs, the logics and the assumptions that enable it to control and steer the discourse.

The ‘Why’ of the surveillance trade is, by the way, in the midst of our shock and outrage, a rare instance of sadness and regret. The innocent early narrative of Google’s own, initially idealistic and principled founders, is kicked firmly into touch by the harsh realpolitik of Silicon Valley investment. This switch from ‘customers uber alles to ‘customers as unpaid gold miners’ now informs the proposition - declared to hungry investors, concealed from ‘users’ - of more or less every start-up seeking to emulate the success of Google and Facebook.

Yet there is a two-sided nature to surveillance capitalism that makes it so dangerous, in Zuboff’s view, concealing the dark reality behind the public illusion. Google’s users are not its customers, which means it is radically indifferent to their real interests. Advertising-supported search engines will always prioritise those who pay the bills over those who use its services, so long as they remain hooked.

That also used to be the view of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google’s founders, who presented a paper in 1998 highlighting the perils of advertising. “We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market,” they wrote.

That worldview changed when Google realised that the behavioural insights it could draw from its data were a potential gold mine, offering far greater rewards than other advertising-driven businesses such as commercial television.  

John Thornhill, Financial Times, January 4th 2019

The limits of the remit

One of the very few criticisms that have been aimed at Ms Zuboff’s book is its perceived failure to propose tangible solutions to the looming human rights crisis caused by the rise and dominance of the surveillance trade.

If this is such a big deal, where should we go from here?

As I understand it, the author is too smart to fall into that trap, and I’d like to think, also too humble to dream of being the tiny David against these immense Goliaths. To propose a set of solutions - to go up against these powerful, wealthy and well-connected traders - would not only play directly to the strengths of the opposition. 

We are reminded of lessons from The Art of War … to take on the enemy when conditions are so clearly advantageous to them would be suicidal to her cause. Ms Zuboff has set out - just as Wilberforce did in his maiden abolition speech in 1789 - not to end the war, but to begin it. As such, her primary concern is to unpick and lay bare the underlying narratives that provide the current foundations of the surveillance trade. She has, to my mind, entirely succeeded.

The rest is - and we really don’t want to hear this - up to our governments. We see promising regulatory signs this year in the EU, which is not in such utter thrall to Silicon Valley as the US, which makes do with feeble sabre rattling (will this change under Biden?). But judging by the recent record of, for example, the awful Johnson government in the UK, we must conclude that it’s pretty much up to you and I.

The battle lines have certainly been clearly drawn for us. Are we able to rouse ourselves from the pervasive, Brave New World lethargy that plagues us today?

Or shall we just keep on dancing?