The notion of the inexistence of man, that we are mere simulacrum of an alien mind, that our lives are but the tributary flow of a malevolent thought would in the tradition of religious iconoclasts be a foolish rebirth of ancient gnostic thought as if the world were the dramatic stage of some elder monstrosity, a demiurgic entity full of blind urges whose creation is a catastrophe – a kenosis, a vastation of immanent oblivion. But this would be wrong, a false estimation of ET’s work. No. He was no latter day Gnostic. His thought is closer to an alien incursion from the future, an artificial thought from some machinic world neither transcendent or parallel to our own, but rather our own world and thought known through an unknowing and non-knowledge, an immanent exploration of the Great Outdoors of our own forgotten reality. For it is us who are the fakes, the lost ones wandering in the maze of an illusory order of our own making. Long ago we built up and constructed this false order to hide from ourselves the very monstrosity of our own hideous life. We are the ones who created this counter-world, a utopia of pain and endless labyrinth of death based on our disgusting need to survive.
Think of civilisation as a poorly-built ladder. As you climb, each step that you used falls away. A fall from a height of just a few rungs is fine. Yet the higher you climb, the larger the fall. Eventually, once you reach a sufficient height, any drop from the ladder is fatal.
“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx.
Only one of the many life support systems on which we depend – soils, aquifers, rainfall, ice, the pattern of winds and currents, pollinators, biological abundance and diversity – need fail for everything to slide. For example, when Arctic sea ice melts beyond a certain point, the positive feedbacks this triggers (such as darker water absorbing more heat, melting permafrost releasing methane, shifts in the polar vortex) could render runaway climate breakdown unstoppable. When the Younger Dryas period ended 11,600 years ago, temperatures rose 10C within a decade.
There are many trends and patterns to be found in the past, and the Durants do a commendable job of highlighting them. The essence of their view, however, can be summarized by the following sentence from their short book:
“The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.”
In many ways, the Durants believed that despite all that has and continues to change in our external environment, the real battle is still internal, and real change isn’t produced until we face our minds and our thoughts.