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Inevitablism: How the Dangerous New becomes the water we swim in unaware [Trenchant Edges]
Ideologies are, for all practical purposes, alive.
Welcome back to another week of the Trenchant Edges, where we look at weird people, their ideas, and what we can learn from them to better survive the changing world we live in.
I’ve been going through Shoshana Zuboff’s excellent book Survelience Capitalism, which has entered that rare category of books which syntheizes a bunch of things I’ve been intereted in at a much more sophisticated level than I had been doing.
Her basic thesis is that Survelience Capitalism is a distinct phase of Capitalism with its own dynamics, interests, and outcomes. As distinct as industrial capitalism was to finance capitalism.
The main mechanism is collecting as much information on as many things and people and converting this surplus data into profitable predictions in an advertiser driven behavioral futures market.
It’s often been said that if you’re not paying for the product that you are the product, but this misunderstands the relationship between survelience capitalists, their users, and their customers.
We’re not so much the product as much as we’re the raw materials the product is made from. And here’s the source of all the problems: We cannot be allowed to have any say in whether this process goes on, rendering the question of public privacy moot.
Now privacy is just for corporations protecting trade secrets and governments hiding their crimes in the name of “National Security”.
Anyway, I’m halfway through the book and we’ll definitely be going back to it. I actually ordered a hard copy so I can go through it with a highlighter and inhale all the citations.
One of the ideas Zuboff develops over the course of the work is Inevitabilism, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Inevitabilism: Propaganda of the Assumption
In Zuboff’s formulation, Inevitabilism is a rhetorical move of saying that because something will probably happen no matter what, that we should just let the people who want to do it now take care of it.
In the US and other western countries, this is usually tightly linked with the notion of progress. But it’s often been used, most notably by Karl Marx, to frame the outcome of historical processes as inevitable.
Karl’s been wrong about the global proliterarian revolution so far, which many see as proof he was wrong about everything. But that’s a big leap for something Marx himself thought would take hundreds of years to play out.
But that kind of rhetoric is *very* popular to this day. It’s been used by every political persuasuion I know of and many other political projects.
Back in the mid 20th century it was easy to see history as a consistent raising line towards improvement in all things. Francis Fukuyama famously declared the End of History after the destruction of the Soviet Union. The inevitable victory of Liberal Democracies backing capitalism.
But his analysis missed quite a lot, such as the instability of political coalitions, the depth to which the neoliberal counter-revolution would screw over the working class, and the fragility of international agreements that powered the US economy but I see we’re already getting into tomorrow’s discussion of the Historical Crisis I think we’re in.
The appeal of inevitablism for one’s rhetoric is so obvious I think it might hide some really subtle benefits from which it’s greatest advantages lay.
The Obvious Advantages are:
Allows a speaker to dismiss any argument as unrealistic.
Controls the frame of the conversation.
But those advantages hide some real heavy advantages
Diffuses responsibility and moral agency to vague historical or technological processes.
Discourages any examination of either the assumptions or who benefits from them
Allows hiding more complex ideas as assumptions rather than simple asertions of facts or declarations.
All this makes it quite a coup if you can put it together correctly.
Looking back at the tech optimism of the 1990s, we can see the dual narratives of “The Internet will liberate mankind [and we won’t think about political economy at all]” and “Oh shit, someone’s going to make SO MUCH money from this.”
I don’t think the idea of survelience capitalism was fully formed in those days, but there were certainly some people who saw things a little clearer than the usual wonks in Wired.
If I were a betting man I’d guess Jeff Bezos and Larry Page were pretty prominent on that list. If Mark Zuckerberg didn’t get it in 2004, he undoubtedly did by 2006 or 7.
I’d also bet Bill Gates missed it, falling prey to the same blindspot he launched his company’s partnership w/ IBM on decades earlier.
The usual facts these guys point to is the doubling of processing power every 18-24 months (Moore’s law) and economies of scale on production bringing the cost and size of sophisticated sensors and information processing coming down.
While these have been largely true on the hardware end, services and privacy costs have massively increased.
But when it comes to Big Tech’s actual behavior and the underlying political economy of our world post 2010 or so, the data collection and processing into behvaioral surplus isn’t even factored into these costs. Nor is the personal, privacy, or security costs to these realities.
Among the most offensive things to me about this system is how shit the cybersecurity of these invasive devices often is. Wearables that are easily hacked, databases filled with personal info easily taken by anyone with a little motivation, and smart sensors added to everything no matter what value they provide end users.
It’s some bullshit, but what can you expect from capitalism?
The upside is it’s an easy example of how Industries (That is, capitalist markets with large capital cost of entry requirements so they have to make the money back on economies of scale) must drive demand in order to survive.
And I think this is a good time to break. It sets us up nicely for tomorrow.
I’ll leave you with a page from The Medium Is The Massage that may just be this Newsletter’s motto now: