We are not used to linking regimes of power and mass surveillance to private companies. Historically, society has instead looked to set limits on the power of the state to prevent its abuse.
But today, we witness the emerging of a new, unprecedented form of power, and the entity is not a state nor a government, but a handful of private companies who took hold of the algorithmic medium and who now have the ability to know, predict, and control individual behaviour: instrumentarianism.
I name it instrumentarianism, defined as the insrumentation and instrumentalization of behaviour for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetization, and control.
(Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p. 352)
The opaque and unprecedented nature of surveillance capitalism’s operations allows it to run its operations with little oversight or regulation from governments, subject to its imperatives of infinite growth and revenue.
Its logic of accumulation coupled with gigantic computational power allows the emergence of a new actor: Big Other
Big Other is the entity consisting of big data (the incommensurable cloud of data left behind by the use of connected devices, such as computers, cell phones and automobiles) whose machine intelligence enables the actualization of surveillance capitalism.
I now name the apparatus Big Other: it is the sensate, computational, connected puppet that renders, monitors, computes, and modifies human behaviour. Big Other combines these functions of knowing and doing to achieve a pervasive and unprecedented means of behavioural modification.
(Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p. 376)
Big Other serves the interests of companies whose reach is more tentacular than ever, where human nature is rendered as a commodity and instrumentalized for monetization.
Towards a total power
The power of multinationals like Facebook who dominate the market of data could resemble that of totalitarianism, but such juxtaposition would impede on our ability to recognize its true nature1.
The conditioning of the users’ behaviour by Facebook allows it to attach individuals by creating relations of dependency, rather than forcing them through violence.
The utopia is no longer that of total possession, but total certainty (the detailed knowledge of users and the eventual modification of their behaviour, condition of success for surveillance capitalism).
The means of domination leverage the division of knowledge in society (rather than the exclusive control over coercive means): the knowledge of Big Other is kept and used secretly, against the knowledge of the users who are left without means of defence or negotiation.
And this insidious division of knowledge radical indifference on the part of citizens and governments towards the operations of instrumentarianism. Without knowledge, there can be no defence or moderation.
The connected society is moving towards the concentration of a totalistic power, but not that of totalitarianism: the control over the algorithmic medium in the information society, the manipulation of future citizenship thanks to the knowledge-power exclusively accumulated by Big Other.
I reproduce here some key points from Shoshana Zuboff’s theory of instrumentarianism in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019). ↩︎