Surveillance Capitalism: Are we being cyber-watched?

The age we are living in has been called the ‘Age of Surveillance Capitalism’. It’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’re going to break the sentence down to delve into its complex, yet fascinating and very important meaning.

‘Surveillance’ might bring to mind cameras recording the comings and goings on a private property or, on a bigger scale, a kind of a dictator-state which monitors people’s every movements as envisioned by the great George Orwell in his book ‘1984’. We should think about surveillance in the new context of the internet and social media, where increasingly clever technologies make it easier to monitor what we are doing and saying (and even thinking, according to some).

‘Capitalism’ refers to the economic system by which most western democratic countries are ruled, where property and businesses are privately owned and profits go to those owners and their shareholders.

If capitalism is based on making money out of selling goods and services, think of surveillance capitalism as making money from people. People are the product; we are the product. More specifically, our data is the product. The big business in technology is data, and data has been described as being even more valuable than gold.

Big tech companies make money through advertising (why else would they all be free to use?). Companies who pay loads of money for adverts want maximum exposure, so they need these platforms to keep our attention for as long as possible. Here comes the capitalism bit: that means that these social media channels are all in competition with each other. They are competing for our attention, for our time.

So Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Facebook know everything about us, as the more time we spend on these platforms, the larger the data trail we leave. Advertisers indeed love it as they know exactly what we like and do and buy. We give up our data every day and every time we say yes to ‘accept cookies’. And once out there, it is hard to get it back after signing it away.

The Social Dilemma: think twice about how you use social media

In the recent Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”, former employees for big social media companies (Facebook, Instagram and Google, to name a few) explain just how they do this. This includes having notifications pop up on your phone lock-screen and making your news feed on that channel focused on what you are personally like reading or watching. Those videos of cute puppies or making chocolate chip cookies? They are there for a reason.

The documentary makes the interesting point that in the context of social media, we are defined as ‘users’. Not customers or clients, but users. The aim is to ‘addict’ us to our social media and by default, to our phones. And the more ‘addicted’ we are, the more money social media providers make.

Have you ever had that niggling, even anxious feeling that you just want to check your messenger or Instagram just one more time? Do you wake up in the morning and check your messages? That’s not a coincidence. That’s surveillance capitalism at play.

Further links