This past year of pandemic misery and Trumpist autocracy magnified the effects of the epistemic coup, revealing the murderous potential of antisocial media long before Jan. 6. Will the growing recognition of this other coup and its threats to democratic societies finally force us to reckon with the inconvenient truth that has loomed over the last two decades? We may have democracy, or we may have surveillance society, but we cannot have both. A democratic surveillance society is an existential and political impossibility. Make no mistake: This is the fight for the soul of our information civilization.
Welcome to the third decade.
The Surveillance Exception
The public tragedy of Sept. 11 dramatically shifted the focus in Washington from debates over federal privacy legislation to a mania for total information awareness, turning Silicon Valley’s innovative surveillance practices into objects of intense interest. As Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, observed, the intelligence community would have to “rely on private enterprise to collect and generate information for it,” in order to reach beyond constitutional, legal, or regulatory constraints, controversies that are central today. By 2013, the CIA’s chief technology officer outlined the agency’s mission “to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” acknowledging the internet companies, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Fitbit and telecom companies, for making it possible. The revolutionary roots of surveillance capitalism are planted in this unwritten political doctrine of surveillance exceptionalism, bypassing democratic oversight, and essentially granting the new internet companies a license to steal human experience and render it as proprietary data.
Young entrepreneurs without any democratic mandate landed a windfall of infinite information and unaccountable power. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, exercised absolute control over the production, organization and presentation of the world’s information. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has had absolute control over what would become a primary means of global communication and news consumption, along with all the information concealed in its networks. The group’s membership grew, and a swelling population of global users proceeded unaware of what just happened.
The license to steal came with a price, binding the executives to the continued patronage of elected officials and regulators as well as the sustained ignorance, or at least learned resignation, of users. The doctrine was, after all, a political doctrine, and its defense would require a future of political maneuvering, appeasement, engagement and investment.
Google led the way with what would become one of the world’s richest lobbying machines.In 2018 nearly half the Senate received contributions from Facebook, Google and Amazon, and the companies continue to set spending records.
Most significant, surveillance exceptionalism has meant that the United States and many other liberal democracies chose surveillance over democracy as the guiding principle of social order. With this forfeit, democratic governments crippled their ability to sustain the trust of their people, intensifying the rationale for surveillance.
The Economics and Politics of Epistemic Chaos
To understand the economics of epistemic chaos, it’s important to know that surveillance capitalism’s operations have no formal interest in facts. All data is welcomed as equivalent, though not all of it is equal. Extraction operations proceed with the discipline of the Cyclops, voraciously consuming everything it can see and radically indifferent to meaning, facts and truth.