The Geopolitics of Surveillance Capitalism

In his 1998 landmark False Dawn, John Gray wrote that whatever mutation was to emerge from the disintegration of global free market capitalism and the uncontrolled spread of technology, it would likely be unrecognizable from capitalisms past. Two decades on, we can attest to Gray’s foresight. But the mutation that emerged has now become visible. As Shoshana Zuboff has shown, a new species of capitalism and its variants have been the object of increasing competition between the world’s financial centres of power for some time. Invented in Silicon Valley and the expression of a utopian cultural consensus there, surveillance capitalism has in the space of little over a decade spread virally, mutating as it enters each distinct cultural milieu. The essence of this species is a chimerical offering of certainty. To recapitulate the chimera of investment certainty and to direct capital is the fundamental objective of surveillance capitalism, and the fuel driving this late-modern convulsion is the desire of capital to believe in its tenets. Capital which, over the last four decades, has been judiciously funnelled into the hands of an ever-shrinking financial hyper-elite with few scruples about the consequences of the expansion of socio-political manipulation for commercial gain.  

The resource fuelling this new engine is the behavioural surplus of human populations – a surplus only made available by digital saturation. Not territory, or labour, or hydrocarbons, or culture, or intellectual capital, or military power, or any of the objects of capitalisms past. Mass surveillance of people and their digitally captured behaviour, converted into the promise of economic efficiency and market certainty by the behavioural modification industry employing advanced predictive technologies. For the surveillance capitalists of Silicon Valley, this is the next inevitable turning of the wheel of capitalism, in all its frontier-like anarchy. Citizens, democracies, governments, institutions – all are mere obstacles to be overcome or resources to be tapped and converted. For the surveillance capitalists operating under the Chinese state, this is market and population control geared for regime security with new tools. Same tools and methodologies – varying but not dissimilar intentions.

Both connect certainty with profit. For each variant, big data analytics and the behavioural patterns they yield give rise to a new science of behavioural modification using predictive technologies. Predictive technologies using the fourth generation of AI have proven disappointingly flawed – they require augmenting with cognitive engineering in order to seem more spectacularly lucid. 5G and augmented reality will supercharge this manipulative process. Predict the near future – manipulate behaviour to suit – modify demand – own the market. And attract and direct capital with the resulting certainty.

Win the 21st century.

That’s the geo-economic equation now driving the geopolitics of surveillance capitalism.

To quote Mathias Döpfner, however, ‘you can also win yourself to death.’

America – The Inventor

The US invented the Digital Age. Its competitive edge in digital information and communication technologies applied to military affairs was seen as a decisive factor in the Cold War. After 1991, the Pentagon wrestled with the best way to double-down on its advantage. Its lead in the application of digital ICTs to conventional military affairs remained unsurpassed, but from the first Gulf War till the present, this battlefield lead did not convert into political advantage. Complexity worried strategic thinkers more in the age of the Internet. As Sean Lawson has shown, radical ideas about ‘creative destruction’, and using complexity to combat complexity, led the Pentagon down a speculative path after 9/11. From the chaos created in Iraq and elsewhere, American style democratic capitalism did not and will not emerge. Chaos has spread and large portions of the globe, particularly in what Thomas Barnett described as the Non-Integrating Gap, are ungoverned or ungovernable.

From this paroxysm emerged a model of digital information gathering and analysis with national security utility as well as lucrative commercial applications. We can speculate on the nature of the overlap between Nat Sec and the commercial space, but the reality is uncontroversial. These are tools and methodologies for the digital age with a litany of uses and users. In Google’s hands, followed by a procession of emulators, the wildly profitable attention-harvesting, behavioural modifying surveillance capitalism model was born – coinciding in parallel with the staggering expansion in wealth disparities in the United States and elsewhere. A digital child of the national security state, the progeny now far surpasses the remit of state intentions and control. It surpasses anyone’s remit – it’s just that the private sector is more agile, less encumbered by values and oversight, and more willing to exploit its many possibilities. This exploitation has gone viral. It’s a stunning iteration of the Promethean myth. The power of this tech is protean and, in many ways, has turned on its inventor.

Russia – The Wrecker

Russian strategic thinkers are well known for their foresight, and for their awareness of the human implications of technological advance. In the late 1970s, Russian thinkers wondered how the burgeoning Digital Age would change warfare and society. Their inquiries spurred the American RMA debate in the early 1990s. The USSR could not compete commercially in the Digital Age, by the mid-1980s this was undeniable. Ever students of American strategy, the chaos of post-Soviet Russia masked deep consideration of a strategy for Russian survival in the age of the Internet. It’s essence is of disruption, denial, and delay. It can be glimpsed in the 2016 US election interference. If the strategic objective of surveillance capitalism built by the American primes is an offering of investment certainty via behavioural manipulation, Russia under Putin would mount a multifaceted campaign of disruption. Russian industry cannot compete with the surveillance primes. Its strategy is quite simple – to wreck any chimera of confidence in what they offer – and to weaken the American state at the same time. The massive disparity in financial wealth and political power which has grown markedly since 2008 in the United States is like dry fuel to a wild fire. Russia is just throwing matches. It has much less to lose than everybody else in watching the Digital Age burn down.  

Europe – The Abstainer

Europe’s abstaining from the American corporate-led behavioural modification market, via its GDPR laws and other regulatory responses, is one of the most significant reasons for the trans-Atlantic rift. Size matters in behavioural analytics, and the EU’s rejection of Silicon Valley virtually halves the potential US-dominated market. Google’s Eric Schmidt wrote an open letter in Germany’s FAZ newspaper in April 2014, warning Europe it would become an ‘innovation desert’ if it went ahead with regulatory oversight. The reply was measured and devastating. Indignant disdain could now describe how each views the other. Google and Facebook are huge in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, South America, Africa, and elsewhere. But the regulation of the EU market is catastrophic to the offerings of Silicon Valley’s surveillance primes. Europe, evidently, has no intention of offering its citizens’ behaviour up to Californians to modify.

China – The Builder

While Russia plays wrecker under cover of its massive nuclear arsenal, China has acquired critical geostrategic space to catch up with and surpass the US by recapitulating Silicon Valley’s invention to Chinese ends. China’s government intends to offer exclusive access to its massive domestic behavioural manipulation market on its own terms via state influence over Alibaba, Baidu, Ten Cent, and its infrastructure giant Huawei. The quid pro quo will be the promise of stable and predictable capital returns eclipsing those on offer from the fracturing U.S. markets. In addition, Beijing will export its expertise wherever it is desired, likely to autocratic regimes under the Belt and Road construct for whom population and market control are not merely profitable but matters of survival. This will extend Beijing’s geopolitical reach – with or without the much-discussed blue-water Navy – and unfettered by democratic oversight. Beijing has expertly employed traditional geopolitical puzzles (see the South China Sea) as distractions while it builds its own version of surveillance capitalism with Chinese characteristics.    

Thwarted, or rescued?

It should be obvious from the above that the American quest to leverage the Digital Age to double its strategic advantage outside of conventional military affairs has been hijacked. The terms of any quid pro quo that exists between Russia and China is unknown, but it seems likely Russia will expect a dividend for the risks it has taken in sheltering China while it builds. This could play out in the form of long-term guarantees from Beijing to steer resource demand Russia’s way, as well as advances in the building of a post-hydrocarbon economy, both of which are already evident. The trans-Atlantic divide over surveillance capitalism is pivotal. Europe is not coming back to the fray – whether it remains in its current form as a Kantian experiment or returns to its historical norm. India, Africa, Indonesia, and lately the Philippines have non-alignment legacies that will continue, which portends badly for the Silicon Valley primes once governments and their populations better understand the terms of surveillance capitalism, which is happening quickly. South America is deeply antagonized by its legacy of American quasi-imperialism and looks East – Japan, Australia, and the UK are unlikely to provide the US with the scale it needs to out-compete the organized Chinese behavioural market.

The Digital Age progeny of the national security state has promised much. The views of many respected scholars, writing in the 1990s, who believed it would deliver peace and prosperity backed by an unassailable strategic advantage, have not aged well in two short decades. Its capacity to deliver strategic gain for the United States must now be in serious question. The practices of surveillance capitalism are rapacious. In America, they have accrued massive profit to corporate entities who have no skin-in-the-game of societal well-being, while the model has been lifted and directed toward strategic ends by states for whom the fantasies of a liberal internationalist world based on American democratic capitalism never took flight.

It’s worth bearing in mind an often-overlooked factor. The practices and promises of any of the surveillance capitalists have never been tested at scale. They remain largely theoretical and highly contestable. What is observable are the destructive effects they have caused wherever they have been allowed to operate in the West – no more so than in their country of origin. Arguably the most important feature of any strategy is the capacity to understand when it is failing, and the willingness to change course. Optionality rules. Building up – not tearing down – the social fabric is now the long-overdue task in states for whom the basic requirements of stable and legitimate governance are not being met. And this is not something any society should believe can be algorithmicized. Human life is inherently conflictual, but analogue modes of mediation have the advantage of being tested by time. Digital software-based mediation is brand new, untested, and inherently buggy. Its offerings represent by far the greatest proportion of gain to the people with already vastly outsized power and wealth.

Governments backing the surveillance capital regime will soon be confronted by its unpredictable failings. When the regime is fully-loaded with $ billions in investment momentum, however, the population will be forced to bear the cost to compensate their oversights. Like the Stalinists and the Maoists before them, there interventions will carry a momentum they cannot resist. When that occurs, we will know we have seen all of this before. Those most convinced they have cracked the code of history are always the most likely to repeat it. The practices of surveillance capitalism will speed the unravelling of the social fabric. Only the most myopic strategist would mourn its passing. Digital Age technologies that work by design to preserve the social fabric, promote an ethic of civic responsibility, and engender social responsibility among governments, corporations, and individuals will accrue the greatest value for societies worth living in.

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