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Surveillance Capitalism and the Abolition of Man

C.S. Lewis’s classic analysis of the scientific worldview illuminates our present danger.

While perhaps better known for writing children’s yarns such as the Chronicles of Narnia or Christian apologetics like Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis was also an incisive social critic, demonstrating a keen awareness of the social dynamics of his times. His analysis, penetrating but not always mirthful, is best exemplified by The Abolition of Man (1944). In three short sections, Lewis explains how the dominant educational perspective of the day seeks to undermine any human concept of the sublime, instead promoting the claim that human perception is entirely subjective because it cannot be objectively proved. According to Lewis, this effort will eventually eliminate all traditional forms of instruction, which sought to train students to appreciate the values by which humanity had historically passed down to succeeding generations and were essential to the maintenance of healthy societies. For the purposes of brevity, Lewis terms the ancient wisdom of humanity the Tao, not limiting the Tao to ancient Chinese conceptions of “the way,” but rather employing it as a shorthand for all of the collected wisdom of both Eastern and Western civilizations across the centuries.

Lewis envisions a coming stage of history in which man’s conquest of nature will culminate in a tipping point, where “man-moulders” will possess an “omnipotent state and an irreversible scientific technique” amounting to “a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.” Moreover, this conditioning elite will dispense with attempting to transmit the Tao to the next generation, and instead will promulgate values as “mere natural phenomena” to be transferred to the “pupil as part of the conditioning.” The conditioners will “know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce,” will stand “outside, above,” free “to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the human race.”

And what of the motives of the conditioning elite? While they may initially conceive of themselves as “servants and guardians of humanity,” Lewis says their benevolent intent cannot endure. This is not because the conditioners are bad men, but rather due to the fact “that they are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into a void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proven to be the abolition of Man.” This is so because once the good has been “debunked,” all that remains is unmitigated, unprioritized desire, as “those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.” Ironically, the conditioners’ capture of human nature comes at the cost of displacing the Tao from its function of taming nature for humanity, thus opening the door widely for nature’s return in determining the circumstances of human existence for both conditioned and conditioners.

Shoshana Zuboff’s recent narrative of surveillance capitalism makes a strong case for qualifying as the specific fulfillment of C.S. Lewis’s disturbing vision. She has done us (most of us, anyway) a great service in attempting to identify, categorize, and define the greatest threat to human freedom and most significant issue of the 21st century in her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Subtitled, “The Fight for Human Freedom at the New Frontier of Power,” this study outlines the challenge that interactive technologies present to previous concepts of both individual autonomy and societal flourishing. In her analysis of big data, big tech, and what she calls “Big Other,” Zuboff addresses the overarching dynamic of our times, clarifying a unanimously felt but nearly as often misunderstood social predicament growing out of our rapid transition to electronically mediated lifestyles. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is squarely in line with Lewis’s analysis in The Abolition of Man.

Zuboff describes surveillance capitalism as a phenomenon that, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data…declared as proprietary behavioral surplus…fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.” In exploiting the “digital exhaust” of our online activities for the purpose of individually focused advertisements that culminate in behavioral modification, surveillance capitalist actors such as Google and Facebook have thwarted the economic historian Karl Polanyi’s “double movement,” by which governmental protections counter dramatic increases in private economic power, and turned Friedrich Hayek’s contention that free markets provide the ultimate protection against domination on its head, potentially ushering in an age of neofeudalism. Updating Hannah Arendt’s concept of dispossession as “digital dispossession,” Zuboff describes how the seeming innocuousness of internet activity during the last quarter century has culminated in a massive yet subtle transfer of power, both within the realm of private economic actors and vis-à-vis the power of the state.

Instead of the 20th-century economic division of labor, surveillance capitalism has created a 21st-century “division of knowledge,” in which surveillance capitalists retain rights to their own privacy while, via algorithmic analysis and continuous experimentation, they increasingly violate the privacy of all others engaged in digital social interaction, resulting in behavioral capture and a situation approximating Emile Durkheim’s “extreme asymmetries of power,” and paralleling Lewis’s conception of a societal chasm between conditioners and conditioned. Of course, all of this was supported by Enlightenment faith in human goodness and reciprocity resulting in the inexorable progress of humanity through science.

The near ubiquity of the internet, online communication, and connected “smart devices” has overwhelmingly perpetrated the naturalistic fallacy that “because dominant corporations are successful, they must also be right.” According to Zuboff, this poses a direct threat to citizens’ “right to the future tense,” their ability to “first imagine facts and then will them into being.” What is emerging is a new order in which electronically connected and observed behavior is so prevalent that there will no longer be a need for negotiation, contract, or trust, as all sorts of private economic actors (beyond the usual big tech suspects) gain and deploy electronic systems that provide a sufficient level of awareness of customer activity to simply cut off service when they deem behavior to be unacceptable, amounting to what Zuboff terms an “uncontract dystopia.” As this process continues at warp speed, human beings are increasingly robbed of their identities, and so Zuboff declares, “an information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism will thrive at the expense of human nature and threatens to cost us our humanity.”

Instead of totalitarianism’s state-controlling Big Brother, western societies are now faced with Big Other—“the sensate, computational, connected puppet that renders, monitors, computes, and modifies human behavior.” Zuboff argues that the rise of surveillance capitalism is akin to the advent of totalitarianism a century ago, as, both today and immediately following the First World War, an unprecedented phenomenon, abetted by bewildering political developments and dramatic advances in communication technology, creates a new social reality that is keenly felt but neither well-defined nor categorized. Particularly because surveillance capitalism is driven by non-state actors—who may indeed capture and harness government power—it has not received the scrutiny of Western publics inculcated with the 20th-century narrative of the struggle for human freedom against fascist and totalitarian states. Western societal narratives decrying nationalism as the strongest threat to liberty and a vehicle for a major-power war have insulated surveillance capitalism from the requisite level of analysis, concern, and search for solutions that must be summoned to deal with the crisis.

The overlaps between Lewis’s broad prognostication of the fate of humanity in its quest to best nature with scientific stratagems and Zuboff’s account of our capitulation to the internet medium are stark and unavoidable. Zuboff alludes to the act of conditioning as integral to surveillance capitalism, and Lewis employs the term “conditioners” to identify the small elite that first lures the rest of us into the trap. Both elucidate this dynamic by referring to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with Lewis explicitly stating that Francis Bacon, “the chief trumpeter of the new era” (the scientific era), is the heir to the demon-summoning Faustus. And, perhaps most poignantly, both Lewis and Zuboff boldly characterize the immensity of the challenge to our humanity before us: For Zuboff, surveillance capitalism aims to divest human beings of autonomy and self-determination; for Lewis, the proclaimed victory over nature entails the very “abolition of man.”

As to remedies, Zuboff hopes that a vastly increased popular consciousness of the problem might result in legal sanction to contain surveillance capitalism. It does not seem that this resolution is in the offing in the near term. But one thing is certain: In the face of this conditioning, even in an era of social distancing, we must do all we can to sustain organic, physical human community.

Greg Ryan is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Union University in Jackson, TN. He is a former naval intelligence officer and author of US Foreign Policy Towards China, Cuba and Iran: The Politics of Recognition (Routledge, 2018).

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