Zuboff is the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” an ambitious fright-opus that examines the new corporate trafficking in human habits and the consequences for our society. She thinks it’s absurd, not to mention blaming the victim, to say that we’re reckless with our privacy online. Rather, she argues, we have no choice. Online is where our individual needs get met, because they aren’t being met in real life. “The real institutional world has abandoned us,” she tells me.
As she notes: We call the airlines — or our insurance companies or our banks — and spend ten minutes talking to robots, then another 15 on hold, waiting to speak to an actual person. Is it any wonder we handle matters concerning our health, travel, and banking online instead?
Zuboff has equal compassion for our promiscuities on social media, as compromising as they may be to our privacy. Status online has become compensation for living in an environment of economic instability. It may even pay economic dividends. Influencers online can make money. (Two words that turn my blood to ice: Instagram celebrity.)
What many of us don’t realize, when we’re online, is how very much the technologies we’re using are reshaping our ideas about privacy without our notice. Which in turn reshapes our behaviors.
This is one of the core themes of “Re-Engineering Humanity,” by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger. It’s not an accident, they argue, that we treat our privacy differently now. The tools we use have been designed with exactly this end in mind.
I think, in my own life, about the first random person whose friend request I accepted on Facebook. I no longer remember his name. I simply remember realizing that he was not, as best as I could discern, a friend of a good friend, but rather had come my way via a loopity skein of loose ties. Still, I clicked “accept.” Before I knew it, I was doing this pretty regularly, especially in 2014, when I had a book to sell. (Status! Visibility! Sales!) And all was fine with this freewheeling system until the day that one of those random people — someone who’d requested my friendship, not the other way around (it was never the other way around) — wrote me a nasty note on Facebook Messenger, letting me know he’d seen me on television and thought me a perfect idiot.
I unfriended him. But I also felt unnerved and rather furious with myself: He had, at that point, presumably seen pictures of my kid, my wedding at City Hall, my 25th high school reunion. How had I decided that such a thing was … fine?