On Surveillance Capitalism

(Copied from an internet forum)

To X:

Thank you, X, for your thoughtful post.  Yes, I agree with many of the things you say, but let me express some skepticism over the overall “optimistic” tone.   Indeed, over the last few days I have watched two documentaries and read a book that put very important indications on the table, if we needed them, that optimism may be a form of collective (and ideological) self-delusion.  And, trust me, those indications do not come from any sort of ultraleftist delirium.  So, I seriously recommend that Heidegger Circle scholars watch The Social Dilemma documentary in Netflix, the Brexit documentary in HBO, and that they read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

I do not want to make this too long, so let me only refer to Zuboff’s detailed claim (her book has been in the making for most of the last twenty years) that we are in the midst, but at the same time only the beginning, of a paradigmatic phase in capitalism, which is the move to what she calls surveillance and instrumentarian capitalism.   In the same way that the exploitation of the “dark continent” was at some point in the 19th century a largely lawless condition of capitalist expansion, she claims, and demonstrates, that the dark continent today is human experience as such, now open to thievery and expoliation.  Surveillance capitalism continues and makes a paradigmatic leap onto ongoing primitive accumulation processes by colonizing the deepest recesses of individuation in order to use individuation itself as raw material for economic benefit–this is of course an instance of productionism as the very motor of collective life as we know it.  She is a reformist, and believes it could eventually be controlled by democratic policies, which are the very policies being radically dismantled in effect–and this is the reason why I very much doubt it.

She makes the point, repeatedly and emphatically, that technology has little to do with it: that these are massive decisions made at the economic and political level for a particular instrumentalization of technology that is, as such, contingent and could be reversed.   No doubt this has become the commonplace assumption for many of those who think about these issues, namely: “there is nothing wrong with technology, it is really politics, stupid!”  But I think Heidegger, precisely, makes a different case, which could be summarized as: ongoing primitive accumulation is technologically driven, and the economic and political system just follows suit and adapts to it.  Will to power is first technological, secondarily capitalist.

I recognize the above raises a huge problem.  Is Heidegger right?  Was Max Weber right?  One needs to make a choice.

Remember the interplay between Wegsein and Dasein in Contributions to Philosophy?  When I think about what “transformative thinking” might mean I am not thinking about poetico-mystical pieties or political revolutions–I prefer to stay around, and to stick to, the notion of Da-sein as the key to the “other beginning.”  Which is just about all I personally can do.

Surveillance capitalism expropriates us, radically.  It is the most extreme historical development of Wegsein, most precisely because, as James Osborn has said a couple of times, it hides itself, it proceeds through secrecy, and will not let us see what it is doing to us.

Gelassenheit, or Seinlassen, cannot happen within the context of an embrace of technology in the epoch of surveillance capitalism, which does not liberate but secretly robs us of the very possibility of experience, and therefore changes our very humanity–without us noticing it.  For the most part.   Also here, or primarily here, a step back, the famous Schritt zurück, needs to be taken.

When I was living in Scotland a few years ago I was returning home from the university and I ran into an old man holding a screwdriver and walking aimlessly in the middle of the street.  He looked thoroughly disoriented, so I asked him whether I could help him.  He thanked me profusely, a bit incoherently, and told me that his tv had stopped functioning two days ago, and could I please fix it for him.  I cannot tell you the despair in his eyes, the absolute need he felt for a functioning tv, which was his only resource against radical loneliness and death.  I have often thought about him.  I was not able to help him, could only offer the phone number of some technical service for him to use.  Never knew whether he called them.

All the very best, Alberto

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