Surveillance Society, Capital Society

The December 2013 issue of The Atlantic has excellent food for thought on the related spheres of capitalism and surveillance. Eleanor Smith introduces The Explorer, a camera-covered rubber ball that SWAT teams can use to peer inside dangerous spaces: just throw it in and watch it bounce around, creating both a panorama of the space and real-time video feeds in all directions. This reminds me a bit of The Circle, of course- and has both excellent, consequential uses in disaster recovery as well as plenty of nefarious uses depending on the temperature of just who owns the bouncing ball in question. But this is, in any case, surveillance with a small ‘s.’ For Surveillance writ large, turn to Don Peck’s article in the same issue: They’re Watching You at Work. This article does an outstanding job of reminding us that data mining on human behavior provides new affordances that were unimaginable previously. Data collection, ingestion and actionable mining is not a simple incremental step forward, but rather can be a game-changer for just how we hire. Peck writes about video games designed to predict, with frightening accuracy, who will perform well if hired. Pity the statistical tail- the unusual, rarely-hired, awkward candidate who someone takes a risk on hiring and who turns out to be pure gold that just needed the right mentorship. I fear that, one day, college applicants will face this same deterministic game of digital competency: will this make the graduating class four years later depressingly homogeneous? Maybe not: they can be just exactly as diverse as we program them to be, if the data mines are to be trusted fully enough. Of course, in the end of the day, the problem with all these data-driven techniques is the wag-the-dog problem. When Sandy Pentlant’s social badge is worn by every employee so the employer can ascertain their interactions with everyone (no kidding), just how many of the interactions in the workplace will be wholly inauthentic, driven only by the need to feed the “badge” machine and placate the employer surveillance program? Sure, we will redefine the workplace and the college through these techniques. But I guarantee the side effects will be richly unanticipated.


One final article well worth reading is Chrystia Freeland’s Is Capitalism in Trouble? Not to spoil the article, but the answer is ‘yes.’ Freeland’s thesis is that Western Capitalism is inherently unsustainable as it is polarizing society in ever more dramatic ways. Income inequality leads to bad places, from social upheaval to political upheaval and so, the arc leads to a place that the wealthy themselves will endeavour to avoid– eventually. Freeland reports on the B Corp community, which specifically commits executives to serving society in positive ways. Of course, today, this movement is tiny compared to the massive number of standard, shareholder-maximizing corporations; and the role of automation, as I argue in Robot Futures, cannot be overstated since robotics will increase the ownership and wealth of the capital class at the expense of the former middle class. It’s good to see repeated discussion of these issues among journalists, CEO’s and the like. Maybe, just maybe, there will eventually be stomach for actually talking about the kind of structural solutions we will, inevitably, need to face.


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