When making a purchase, conducting a transaction, communicating, or even using public transport, our moves are monitored via our smartphones and other devices. Professor Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism states that we are giving up our autonomy in multiple ways because of this system of surveillance by data firms (which are selling the information to marketing companies).
How are we giving up our autonomy though?
Zuboff claims that targeted advertising and other forms of surveillance are modifying consumer behaviour. While one could argue that the entire advertising industry is aimed at manipulating the consumer in a similar fashion, it is not that similar. These companies have access to a lot more information than a simple advertising campaign would collect. They can predict your most likely decisions and actions based on previous details about your actions and lifestyle. And it is the idea that these companies now have the power to modify and control consumer behaviour to such a large degree, Zuboff argues, that can be quite alarming.
Data companies such as Meta and Google have become wealthy off of surveillance. Apparently, the tech giants are garnering the valuable data in the form of facial expressions, the punctuation we use in our messages, locations we frequently visit, and other details, to predict our emotional behaviours. This emotional blueprint is then utilized by these companies and sold to marketers to create subliminal consumer cues and bombard us with advertisements and posts to prompt us towards a desired action, such as buying products. Furthermore, these companies are becoming extremely wealthy and are the new economic giants. Alphabet for example is the parent company of Google – the world’s fourth largest company with a market capital of $1.773 trillion. Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is the eight largest company in the world with a market capital of $627.9 billion.
So do consumers have any control over this? The most likely answer is no. Zuboff says consumers are mostly oblivious to this issue and the level of surveillance is a lot deeper than we are actually aware of. Moreover, there is no escaping surveillance through mobile apps that are already embedded with the software required to record data; via microphones and cameras. It really is difficult to utilise other forms of communication other than Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Completely foregoing a digital life is also highly unrealistic in the modern world because nearly all operations, including financial transactions and forms of communication, are mostly digitally operated.
Do you believe otherwise? Let us know in the comments below.
Sana Ahmad Safdar is a graduate in Communication, Culture and Information Technology and a freelance writer.