Michael J. Casey is the chairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board and a senior advisor for blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative.
The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers.
Don’t look now, but there’s an elephant in the room. Scratch that. It’s an entire herd of elephants.
While Crypto Twitter bickers and fights, leaving competing coin projects and blockchain startups to defend each others’ counter-allegations of centralizing misdeeds, the real centralizing power-mongers of our digital economy have been pillaging our data and reshaping humanity into an instrument of their domination.
That’s the alarming, bold conclusion of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” the recently released mega-tome by Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff.
My prediction: this book, which eviscerates the “applied utopianism” and “technological inevitablism” of data-gobbling Silicon Valley titans such as Google and Facebook, will become a defining text of our age. Read it. It is of vital importance.
I especially think it’s critical reading for the crypto community, where people will feel both vindicated and challenged by Zuboff’s thesis.
If blockchain technology is to play an integral role in the evolution of the digital global economy and be a force for good, rather than a vehicle of computerized subjugation, its advocates will have to contend with the angry backlash against digital technologies that this book will help fuel.
How, truly, is blockchain any better than GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple)? How do we ensure that it doesn’t fall for the same pattern of what Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus extraction?" A general public that's increasingly anxious about their invaded privacy and lost personal agency deserves such questions answered.
Not left, not right
It’s hard to pigeonhole this writer. Zuboff’s instincts are liberal, and she takes a very hard view of raw market power. But her defiant support of the right to individual free will – framed in her elegant phrasing as the right to “sanctuary” and to “the future tense” – dovetails nicely with the views of many pro-privacy advocates in the blockchain community.
The lines between left and right have been blurred for some time. While Zuboff’s no fan of unfettered market capitalism and doesn’t think much of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who’s a darling of many bitcoin fans, there’s much that lines up here with the crypto world’s cypherpunk vision of freedom.
To be sure, the solutions are different. A blockchain solution for breaking down surveillance capitalism would naturally be a technological one, embracing the power of math and cryptography to design a new digital topography of trust that disempowers the centralized middleman and creates human agency within a decentralized system.
Zuboff, by contrast, is suspicious of the absolutism of math-based solutions, and focuses instead on the levers of government. And, since she’s very concerned with the complicity of Western governments in encouraging the current model, she first insists on restoring real democracy to change the system from outside the digital realm.
Her most important contribution to our reckoning with this problem is to craft a language with which to describe what has happened to society in the past two decades. Zuboff's task is to get us beyond the pre-existing frames of reference that constrain our ability to define the unprecedented – as when people at the start of the last century described cars as "horseless carriages."
Introducing new words and concepts such as “surveillance capitalism,” “instrumentarianism,” “Big Other” and, my favorite, “surveillance-as-a-service,” or SvAAS, she gives people a taxonomy for describing the previously indescribable.
That, in itself, will have powerful ramifications, as it will enable the counterattack from citizens, businesses and governments feeling dislocated by the social dysfunction that shows up in our politics, economic divisions and crumbling bonds of trust.
“If democracy is to be replenished,” Zuboff writes, “it is up to us to rekindle the sense of outrage and loss over what has been taken from us.”
A topic we can't ignore
I personally found many of Zuboff's anti-technology positions too extreme. Whereas she sees the concept of "hive minds" as dehumanizing, reducing individuals to automatons, I think it's possible to envisage an information technology-enriched world in which truly autonomous, free-thinking humans more easily come together and collaboratively innovate. The open-source inventiveness of global blockchain development communities speaks directly to this.
But where people like Zuboff matter is that, right or wrong, their words stir discourse and debate. Like it or not, this is going to be a talking point for all of us.
So, if blockchain technology is to be relevant, if its advocates are to rise above the false but, sadly, prevailing mainstream view of them as scam artists and lambo-loving day traders, they will need to insert themselves into the debate.
Some will rightly see an opportunity here for pro-privacy developers. Those building zero-knowledge-proof systems and other privacy-protection layers can talk to a vision of decentralized protocols that both empower individuals to control their own data and prevent the public ledger from becoming a new behavior extraction tool. That's one potential answer to surveillance capitalism.
But it's also important that crypto-savvy businessmen, lawyers, policymakers, academics and journalists are part of this conversation.
How can we ensure that the right regulations, standards, and best-practice norms are installed such that the technology develops on a much healthier trajectory than that with which the current Internet economy has evolved?
Let’s keep our eyes on that ball.
Surveillance camera image via Shutterstock.