This week we read “What is the revenue generation model for DuckDuckGo” and “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism.”
Reading these articles back to back, I was struck by the contrast in how the authors (Shoshana Zuboff, professor at HBS and Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo CEO) view the same problem. Zuboff describes in detail the ways in which data collection on a massive scale (aka big data) and the computing power to store and analyze these data have completely revolutionized the way our economy works – from industrial and manufacturing goods to the mining and cultivation of people’s behavior (what she calls “behavioral surplus”) – in other words, these capabilities have disconnected supply and demand from the needs of people who make up the economy and our society. She calls this “dispossession by surveillance” and makes a very compelling case for why and how this has happened, why it’s bad for citizens and dangerous for our democracy and economy (“harvesting people from the virtual and real world” is the sentence that had the highest creep factor for me…or maybe it was “privately administered compliance regime of rewards and punishments that is free from detection or sanction”). But then Weinberg makes this whole dilemma (but this is how digital companies make money so if they aren’t allowed to collect data in this way how will we have a 21st century economy???) fall apart when he states that all of this data tracking simply isn’t necessary. Wait what?
He describes the DuckDuckGo business model in such a simple way, it almost sounds like we could walk away from all of this, if we wanted to. However, I think that Weinberg’s article actually then supports Zuboff’s case for regulation – most companies will not make the choice to not track people on their own. And I think that Zuboff’s steps for regulating this new “means of production” are the right ones for policymakers to think about.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that I was most struck by when Weinberg says, “using the internet doesn’t have to feel like you’re being watched, listened to, or monitored.” I didn’t realize it until he said it, but that IS what the internet feels like and it wasn’t always that way. Right after reading these articles, I heard a journalist interviewed on Planet Money who gave up the big 5 tech companies. In her own words, her life, “was hell.” I haven’t read it yet, but from her interview, it sounded like because she was no longer being tracked, the internet essentially no longer worked for her.
Finally and importantly, Zuboff I think correctly points to why companies have been able to get away with this kind of tracking and why everyone is surprised that DuckDuckGo has a business model: language. Both articles point out that these companies say that this is necessary for their business model and for their users to have a good experience. Zuboff takes this a step further by pointing out that when talking about the data they collect, they use dismissive terms such as “digital exhaust” and “digital breadcrumbs.” I think this is important to recognize because this is something we can change. What if we started using words like “digital personal property” or “digitally embodied self”?