Shoshana Zuboff Talks Surveillance Capitalism
The talk was the latest in the yearlong Technology and Justice Series, sponsored by the President’s Initiative for Ethical Engagement and Leadership, which aims to help the Haverford community grapple with issues in the intersection of technology, equity, privacy, surveillance, sustainability, and more.
As we move deeper into the digital era, new advances in technology can raise more questions than they can answer. This is part of the basis for the College’s yearlong Technology and Justice series, which seeks to bring Haverford’s long-standing commitment to ethical participation into the 21st century by engaging issues of injustice in the technological era through a series of lectures, roundtables, exhibitions, and workshops.
Conceptualized by former President Kim Benston, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sorelle Friedler, and VCAM Director and Associate Professor of English Laura McGrane, the series brought a lineup of notable figures to campus last semester, including danah boyd and Ruha Benjamin. A workshop with students and public lecture from author and Harvard Professor Emerita Shoshana Zuboff kicked off the spring slate of events this past Thursday.
“This series is premised on the understanding that technology must always be understood in its historical, sociological, and political contexts,” said McGrane. “Technology shapes how each of us engages questions of justice, equity, sustainability, privacy, ownership, labor, surveillance, creativity, and social efficacy. This semester, we continue these conversations with an intensified focus on surveillance, data, and the repercussions of pervasive technologies for our everyday lives.”
Zuboff, whose recent book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, was acclaimed as one of 2019 best pieces of nonfiction by sources including The New York Times and Barack Obama, was a perfect fit to add to the message the series has been developing this whole year.
“For four decades [Zuboff] has written regularly about the evolution of technology in our workplaces, the effects of designs on users, and now on the implications of behavioral data rendering for what she terms surveillance capitalism and the deep toll it takes on every aspect of our lives,” said McGrane.
Zuboff’s long history of engaging audiences with pressing issues certainly showed on Thursday night as she spoke to a packed audience in Sharpless Auditorium. She started her lecture by asking the event’s attendees to volunteer one word answers for why they came. As words like democracy, injustice, freedom, and ethics were tossed out, she revealed a stack of loose-leaf papers, gathered from audiences she’s spoken to around the world, who volunteered many of the same words as those vocalized by Haverford students. Zuboff then pivoted to her pioneering concept of surveillance capitalism, saying,“surveillance capitalists have only one word for us: user.”
The main thrust of Zuboff’s argument is that internet giants, like Facebook and Google, amass digital profiles of each of their users that allow them to predict what a user wants or feels at any given moment based off their search history. These companies then sell this data to commercial businesses or political enterprises, who can then prompt a user online with their product at the exact moment they’re the most susceptible to buying it. This act is done, Zuboff argued on Thursday, at a great monetary profit for the tech companies, while the loss of a user’s individual freedom that this achieves is just as great.
“I think Dr. Zuboff struck an interesting balance between educating us about both the dangers and relatively short history of what she calls surveillance capitalism and prescribing methods to move forward into a future where we are not recognized as just users or data but rather humans with a right to privacy,” said Jeffrey Allen ’22, who was in attendance Thursday night.
Zuboff’s lecture was just the first event hosted this semester by the Technology and Justice Series; up next is a symposium on Feb. 28. But the yearlong series promises to be the first of many sponsored by the President’s Initiative for Ethical Engagement and Leadership.
"Our presidential Initiative on Ethical Engagement and Leadership reflects one of Haverford’s true distinctions: our daily attention to ethical questions,” said President Wendy Raymond. “IEEL champions Haverford students’ engagement with a wide range of ethical issues and thus contributes to their ability to lead in an unknowable future. Great leaders come out of Haverford grounded in this framework of ethics and integrity.”
For several years, IEEL has supported curricular development focused on ethical questions, as well as research opportunities like last summer’s Migration Encounters project. Technology and Justice has been the first yearlong series sponsored by IEEl, and, going forward, it is a framework the initiative plans to continue
“Issues like technology and justice touch us all, locally and globally,” said Raymond. "This year’s inaugural program successfully stimulated important dialogues across multiple parts of our community and with communities beyond our campus. At Haverford, ethical questions continue to activate our engagement with the critical issues of our time.”